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Movie Review: The Jungle Book

The greatest achievement of The Jungle Book might be the fresh story telling.
Aisle Seat, Rob Slack

The Jungle Book

Directed by Jon Favreau

In Theatres

The greatest achievement of The Jungle Book might be the fresh story telling. I mean, how many versions of this story are there? There's the first, a 1942 live action film. The first Disney telling in 1967, the second in 1994 and the third in 1998. Disney's direct to video sequels and spin-offs. There's a Soviet version and anime versions. Something called The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli and Baloo that is neither a sequel nor based on Kipling's The Second Jungle Book. Anyway, my point here is that this story has been told a few times over the last seventy years plus with little variation. We know the story beats, we know that A leads to B leads to C with little surprise. There's something in the story of Mowgli that has captured our collective imagination since Kipling published the collected stories in 1894. And yet somehow director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks and their team have brought a freshness to the story of the man-cub on the run from the tiger Shere Khan, they have shaken the dust off of the old story and came at it with new eyes, with a new perspective. 

I know this story, anyone that has seen any of the adaptations knows this story. We know that because of Shere Khan's threat Mowgli has to leave the jungle with help from the panther Bagheera and Baloo the bear. We know his adventures and challenges. This story is a hundred and twenty two years old. And yet, somehow, against all odds, this new Jungle Book had me on the edge of my seat, had me breathless and anxious and laughing and broken-hearted. The medium, the advances in 3-D, the mind-melting technology used to immerse the audience into the jungle setting - these are only a part of the alchemy. Like the best magic, where the seemingly simple is actually achieved through many, many, many complicated, and invisible to the audience, pieces, The Jungle Book is more than the sum of its parts. There are the performances of the voice actors and the motion capture actors and the performances of the human actors and the dozens and dozens of artists who have created something new out of an old story. Grabbing pieces of the 1967 Disney film and pieces from Kipling's writings, doing away with the pieces that won't work in 2016, the screenplay is like a friend you haven't seen in many years, familiar but at the same time someone new, someone with remarkable stories to tell. 

And with all of the freshness, with all of the advances in technology that make The Jungle Book possible, with all of the Oscar winners and Oscar nominees in the cast, a cast that includes the mighty Idris Elba, with all of the tightrope walking between the obvious racism and colonialism in Kipling's writings and some of the more troubling aspects of the 1967 Disney film and trying to pull a story from these sources and leave the garbage in the trash bin of history, with all of the assorted pushing and pulling that comes with film making, Jon Favreau and his team have never forgotten what this film is - an adventure film for kids. As much as I enjoyed Zootopia, there was much less talking during The Jungle Book. If the volume of children talking during a film is any kind of gauge for how well a film is hitting all the important parts of a child's imagination, then The Jungle Book has set some kind of new standard. In a theatre packed to the brim with humans shorter than four feet tall, there was minimum restlessness, so little chattering. They seemed to be fully immersed in the film, no back of the seat kicking, no plot summaries or questions for the adults. At the same time the energy level in the room was nearly tangible, it was a part of the film experience. 

The Jungle Book, like the best examples of the art form, is a film that transcends its target audience. This is a film that any lover of film would enjoy, no matter their age. The trick that Jon Favreau managed to pull off with Elf, a Christmas movie that can be enjoyed any season, a holiday film that is incredibly entertaining and quite subversive. The trick he pulled off when he made Iron Man, a comic book movie that satisfies both the casual film goer and the obsessive and knowledgeable comic book purveyor, a comic book movie so creatively successful it became the cornerstone and blueprint for a multi-billion dollar franchise. This is the trick he pulls off with The Jungle Book, a kids' movie that is so much more than that, it is entertainment for kids and for adults and for casual film goers and for film connoisseurs. A film that hits all the sweet spots for any audience. 

The Jungle Book is the second of three Disney films this year starring the mighty Idris Elba. The first was Zootopia, the next will be Finding Dory. I'm personally loving this new phase of Idris Elba's career. His physicality is so authoritative, so commanding, that to see kids respond to just the voice, with its charm and gravitas, with its undertones of threat, is something to behold. To see Mr. Elba create something imposing and frightening using only his voice, to hear him convey danger without the words, with only the tone and timbre of his voice is also something to behold. I've thought for a few years now that Mr. Elba might be one of the great screen actors of his generation. To see him explore different aspects of his skill set, to see him use his voice as an instrument, in an almost musical sense even without singing, is a pleasure. 

When Shere Khan is introduced we see his power and danger and force of will in the way the other animals respond to his presence, in their silence, in their submissive body language. But it is when he speaks that Shere Khan becomes a truly dangerous and frightening presence. Idris Elba's Shere Khan is John Luthor if John Luthor had never joined the police force. Shere Khan is Stringer Bell, threatening and with the will and ability to follow through on those threats.

The depth of the talent in this film is astounding. From Ben Kingsley to Lupita Nyong'o to Giancarlo Esposito to Bill Murray to Scarlett Johansson to Christopher Walken and many others, including Garry Shandlings's last performance, the cast of The Jungle Book is like some kind of dream team. The kind of team that maybe only Disney could pull together. The greatest vocal performances ever wouldn't save this movie if the animals weren't completely believable as animals and as characters however. And they are, each and everyone of the animals is unique and separate and have gravity and weight and dignity. The fact that they all exist within a bank of servers, that they aren't real world, just about melts the brain. The notion that there is no bear walking around India with the voice of Bill Murray kind of breaks my heart a little. 

Neel Sethi as Mowgli just completely sells this world, this world populated with talking animals, this world where a toddler was raised by wolves and a panther. Only ten when he was cast, Neel Sethi never strikes a false note, is never caught acting. And when you consider that he was acting against puppets on set, that is a heck of an achievement at any age. But when you consider his age, well, my brain just about seizes up. One of the small details that really sells the danger of the world Mowgli lives in is the attention to his scars and bruises and cuts. He is a human child living amongst wild animals, he is easily damaged. This attention to detail makes the world of The Jungle Book that much more immersive. 

There are some frightening scenes in The Jungle Book, some moments that might be a little too much for wee ones that don't handle that kind of thing well. But if your kid got through Toy Story 3 or The Rescuers or The Little Mermaid or Inside Out without needing much in the way of professional therapy than they should be fine. I'm not a parent so I can't really judge these kinds of things. When I was a kid (he says while yelling at the youngsters with their hippity hop and their skinny jeans) I made it through Old Yeller just fine. Though The Aristocats did turn me into a life-long fan of back alley cat jazz bands.