Thursday, May 12, 2016

Movie Review: "The Jungle Book" (2016)

© Walt Disney Pictures

Every six months or so, we're bound to have this same discussion. This chat about whether or not it's worth Disney's time to make these near-exact live action replicas of their greatest hits. And while I may not always be a fan of the outcome, I can't fault them for trying. But their newest endeavor—an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's 1894 collection, but more specifically, Disney's 1967 musicalThe Jungle Book, is a unique one. The extent to which this film is twisted into a 3D/4D viewing experience is so overwhelming, it's almost impossible to watch in a 2D format.

I made a mistake choosing the latter version, because it didn't take long to notice there was always a bit of a blur—a lack of finesse about the picture, the CGI and live action never lining up quite right. Shouldn't these movies be just as enjoyable with or without 3D glasses? Suffice it to say, it's important that I distinguish how I saw the film, and that I've come to the conclusion that it will contribute to whether or not you'll like it.

The story should be familiar. Rescued as a baby by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), a man-cub named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) has grown up in the safety of his adopted wolf pack. That is until the jaded and scarred tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), threatens the well-being of his pack unless they hand Mowgli over to be killed. In an effort to spare his family, Mowgli travels with Bagheera through the jungle towards the Man Village, but his reluctance to leave the only home he's ever known causes a rift between the two.

As he sets off on his own, Mowgli finds himself in the company of creatures great and small, including the python Kaa (Scarlett Johannson), the giant wannabe-human ape King Louie (Christopher Walken), and honey-hungry bear Baloo (Bill Murray). But Shere Khan hasn't stopped his search, and Mowgli realizes he may need to stop running and face him in order to save the jungle.

The film feels less for kids because of how seriously they take all the characters (even the non-scary ones were kinda scary). Shere Kahn is a spectacular villain, and even though Mowgli doesn't ever quite get it, his animal friends certainly do. Considering the character changes they made, it may have behooved them to just do away with Mowgli all-together. The jungle animals all appear to have history, personalities, and vested interest in the stability of their community, but this kid just wants to keep running around with no shoes on. Sethi suffers from a bad case of "dead eyes," but you have to give the kid credit. He's not interacting with a single tangible co-star, so it's no surprise he's caught staring into the middle distance all the time.

Then add in the awkward songs, and Christopher Walken doing a Christopher Walken impression, mumbling "I Wan'na Be Like You" ominously as an unfathomably large orangutan, and I laugh out loud. And not supportive laughing, the embarrassed kind. Audiences think they want to hear the songs they loved for 50 years in the remake, but they don't. Because a movie like this can't incorporate the tunes organically. Either everyone sings, or no one does. Shoehorning tracks into too-serious scenes aren't going to make it better, it will just take us out of the story. The only positive here is that it only happened twice. Sticking Kaa's song "Trust In Me," sung by the sultry Johansson, into the closing credits instead of during the film was far better way to pay homage.

In the end, it all comes down to Bagheera. Bagheera is the star. He's the heart, he's the soul, he's the barometer by which all the other characters are measured, and none even come close. In a film that tried too hard to be like its animated version, but gutted most characters of any semblance of their former selves, Bagheera was the exception, steadfast and true.

His relationship with Mowgli is what brought out the strongest emotions from the otherwise terrible child actor. Like a stalwart bachelor who can't admit he cares for someone like they were his own son, Kingsley's Bagheera is stern and wise and the only one with any real perspective on the world they live in. He was handled perfectly, and the primary reason this movie hit that resonant chord.

There are no shortage of Jungle Book adaptations—it's hard to make one that doesn't tug at the heart-strings at least a little bit. And this one certainly accomplished that (can we talk for a second about how unbearably cute Mowgli's little wolf-sibling, Gray, was? *dies*) with the sheer fact that we care about these animals. And Mowgli, I guess, whatever. Point being, audiences will enjoy the familiar elements of character and music, and if you can overlook the missteps in story and tone, you'll walk away with a satisfied smile—maybe even a tiny lump in your throat and a raging desire to watch the original.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars

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