Monday, April 18, 2016

Jon Favreau's THE JUNGLE BOOK: Charms & Visual Delights A-Plenty

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

THE JUNGLE BOOK (Dir. Jon Favreau, 2016)

Okay, so I was cynical walking in to this live-action/CGI adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 classic “The Jungle Book,” as it’s another big ass Disney re-imagining of an established property, but its charms as well as its visual delights are plentiful. I really should have had more faith in Favreau.

Apparently it did the director a lot of good to get back to his indie roots with his 2014 hit CHEF, as there’s spirit and soul here that was in short supply in Favreau’s previous bid for blockbuster success, 2011’s COWBOYS AND ALIENS (not to mention 2010’s IRON MAN 2).

Favreau, aided by stellar cinematography by Bill Pope (THE MATRIX trilogy), brings a grand sweep to the story of Mowgli, a young orphaned boy raised by wolves in the jungles of India played with wide-eyed gusto by newcomer Neel Sethi.

Mowgli was brought to the wolves as a baby by Bagheera, a black panther voiced by Ben Kingsley. When Mowgli life is threatened (as are the lives of his adoptive parents voiced by Lupita Nyong'o and Giancarlo Esposito) by the sinister Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a Bengal tiger who strongly distrusts humans; he leaves the pack to journey to the nearby man village guided by Bagheera.

From there, Mowgli has a series of adventures involving almost getting squeezed to death by the sultry-voiced python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), stealing honey from a dangerous cliff location for a sloth bear named Baloo (a wonderfully droll Bill Murray), and being kidnapped by monkeys who take him to the lair of the towering King Louie (a cunning Christopher Walken), a Bornean orangutan who, like Kaa did before him, wants Mowgli to provide him with the secret of man’s “red flower”aka fire.

Despite being shot entirely on a green screen soundstage in LA, THE JUNGLE BOOK’s CGI-ed environs are astoundingly convincing. The photorealism pops in every shot, and coupled with how intricately animated the animals are, there’s barely a moment in which the viewer isn’t immaculately immersed in what’s on screen.

Favreau, who co-wrote the screenplay with Justin Marks, whose only previous feature length writing credit is STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI, has a warm feel for this material which helps transcend it from what could’ve been a routine run through familiar set-pieces.

While Sethi and Murray, who have the best chemistry together bonding as boy and bear, get to duet for a brief bit on the Disney standard “The Bare Necessities,” the decision for the film to not be a musical seems to have been made, but if you stay through to the bitter end there are several excerpts of songs sung by Johansson, Walken, et al, during the closing credits.

Otherwise, the score by John Debney, a frequent Favreau collaborator, overworks the drama at times, but mostly keeps its movements admirably in line with the action.

As overwhelmed as the character is with his surroundings and iconic co-stars, Sethi puts in a solid everykid performance as Mowgli. The scenery and spectacle wouldn’t have as much weight to it if there wasn’t a kid to care about in the middle of it all.

Both by box office (it’s #1) and critical acclaim (it’s at 94% on Rotten Tomatoes) Favreau and co. have a huge hit in THE JUNGLE BOOK, with a sequel already in the works. It’s an understandable gut reaction to react with cynicism to all the remakes, re-imaginings, sequels, etc. that clog up the multiplexes, but films like this show that there are inspired creative forces, who while faithful to the original source, can produce new worthwhile versions of beloved properties.

So it’s best to leave your skepticism at the door, and go in as wide-eyed as Mowgli.

More later...

No comments: