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Dustin Putman

The Jungle Book  (2016)
3 Stars
Directed by Jon Favreau.
Cast: Neel Sethi; voices of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Garry Shandling, Brighton Rose, Emjay Anthony, Max Favreau, Chloe Hechter, Asher Blinkoff, Knox Gagnon, Sam Raimi, Jon Favreau.
2016 – 105 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for some scary moments and peril).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, April 12, 2016.
If Rudyard Kipling was alive today and got a chance to see 2016's warmly felt, state-of-the-art "The Jungle Book," he would not believe his eyes. Kipling's timeless 1894 story collection was inspired by his early childhood spent living in India and allegedly written for daughter Josephine, who passed away at age 6 in 1899. A grand adventure featuring anthropomorphic animals and a lot of heart, the book was a personal work for the author—one which director Jon Favreau (2014's "Chef") and screenwriter Justin Marks (a long way from 2009's "Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li") have lovingly conceived for the screen. At once a remake of Disney's 1967 animated musical and a straight adaptation of Kipling's opening story in the anthology, called "Mowgli's Brothers," "The Jungle Book" is a visionary showstopper that nonetheless never misplaces the tale's characters and emotions. That the film was shot exclusively at L.A. Center Studios in downtown Los Angeles is beyond comprehension; never for so much as a second does this look like it was shot anywhere but on location in the Indian jungle.

Abandoned in the wilderness as a toddler, young human Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is saved from certain death by black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and subsequently raised as one of wolf couple Akela (voice of Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha's (Lupita Nyong'o) own. Trained to run with the pack, Mowgli is happy with his place among the animals of the jungle until his life is suddenly put into jeopardy. As he has continued to grow, unforgiving tiger Shere Khan (voice of Idris Elba) sees this man-cub as a direct threat to his domain. The boy is begrudgingly sent off with Bagheera en route to a nearby village where the hope is he can be safe to grow up with his own kind, but Shere Khan makes it clear he will not rest until Mowgli is dead.

Employing what must be some of the most photorealistic computer-generated visual effects ever put to film, "The Jungle Book" creates a fantastic world alive with all the wonder and possibility one's imagination is capable. The sheer magnitude of its technological accomplishments is staggering, sending Mowgli across a landscape as immersive as it is remarkable. How an exotic place of such depth and outward scope could have been made without its makers leaving a studio is unimaginable in and of itself, but the wizardry which brings to life its CG animals is equally as impressive. Their fur, their expressive faces and eyes, their talking mouths, their body movements—with the possible exception of Shere Khan's first appearance as he makes his way down to a watering hole, there is not a solitary seam which gives away that these creatures are anything other than really there interacting with newcomer Neel Sethi, a natural, winning find as Mowgli.

As a narrative, "The Jungle Book" is episodic in structure (think "Alice in Wonderland"), following Mowgli from one location and sticky situation to the next as he runs into a series of colorful characters. There's Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), a seductive python who shows Mowgli his past while seeking to hypnotize him for her own nefarious plans. There's ruler of the monkeys King Louie (Christopher Walken), an opportunistic Gigantopithecus who seeks answers from Mowgli about the coveted "red flower" (really a flame) forever seen emanating from the man-village. Most prominently, there's Baloo (Bill Murray), a jovial sloth bear who befriends Mowgli after coming to his urgent aid among the fog-shrouded treetops. A little more time attributed to their burgeoning bond would have only helped a later scene where Baloo makes a tough decision in order to save Mowgli's life, but as the two of them float down the river and belt out "The Bare Necessities," the picture magically soars. Playful inspiration from the 1967 animated classic later reappears in time for King Louie to sing "I Wan'na Be Like You," deliciously performed by Christopher Walken (2014's "Jersey Boys"). A third song intended for Kaa, "Trust in Me (The Python Song)," is sadly left out of the movie and relegated to the end credits—especially disappointing since this version sung by Scarlett Johansson (2016's "Hail, Caesar!") is so silky and alluring.

Veering away from the pitch-perfect conclusion of the animated feature, "The Jungle Book" ends somewhat disingenuously, seemingly contradicting Mowgli's arc as a boy who longs to stay with his pals in the jungle but, realistically, doesn't belong there. What comes before this final false note, however, is a rousing adventure unafraid of embracing its tenser moments while wearing its empathetic heart on its sleeve. Kids will love it even when they are a little scared, while adults will be won over by its vibrant characters and humane sincerity. Acting against virtually nothing must be difficult for any actor, but Neel Sethi, as Mowgli, makes it look effortless; he is a phenomenal discovery, evidently incapable of artifice. As the malicious Shere Khan, Idris Elba (2016's "Zootopia") brings a cool, calm, devious power to his vocalizations, while Lupita Nyong'o (2015's "Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens") is perfection in her emotionally captivating turn as mother wolf Raksha. On the technical side, John Debney (2014's "Draft Day") has composed a music score of toe-tapping, drum-beating potency, and cinematographer Bill Pope (2010's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World") has crafted images of swirling, eloquent cohesion. In 2015, Disney reimagined a live-action "Cinderella" as splendid as its animated counterpart. With 2016's "The Jungle Book," director Jon Favreau has crafted an equally enchanting achievement.
© 2016 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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