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The Jungle Book

Junglebook05The remade Jungle Book should suck. We’re conditioned to expect a childhood heroes and myths to be ground into cynical action-and-effects bonanzas of the sort that would steamroll over the charming, gentle animated musical from 1967. And the opening—with young Mowgli running breakneck through the jungle with a pack of animals, fleeing a powerful jungle predator, suggested the film might live down to those jaded expectations.

But hell, no, movie fans.

I’m delighted to report that, instead, Jon Favreau—whose first Iron Man film remains the apex of the Marvel pantheon—delivers a touching, spirited movie that pairs an A-list voice cast and amazing visuals with the most charming and natural child actor (Neel Sethi) I can remember seeing.

The Jungle Book

Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong’o, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito
Review: 5 stars (of five)

The sprawling, multifaceted Indian jungle in which the film set is actually a Los Angeles soundstage, and all the talking animals are, of course, computer generated. The effect is astonishing—it never occurred to me during the film that the locations were all CG, and the only time an animal was not completely convincing against Sethi’s Mowgli was when it was on the scale of an elephant or Chrisopher Walken’s King Kong-sized ape, Louie. That makes Sethi’s acting all the more amazing. He performed against Henson-created puppets that don’t appear in the film, and I assume he was not working with the actual voice talents—an amazing cast from Ben Kingsley and Idris Elba to Lupita Nyong’o and the inimitable Bill Murray. So watch that kid, he’s amazing.

(Early in the film there’s also a voice cameo by the great and recently departed Garry Shandling that’s a nice surprise.)

Junglebook04Another amazing feat: The film has modern action, but remains kid-appropriate. This is a story full of death and violence, with families torn asunder. It is not unfamiliar with the casual savagery of a nature documentary, but while Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks work in some tear-jerking moments, they do not exploit the potential gore of this animal-mauling storyline. Nor do they follow the earlier film’s Old World certainty that Man and civilization are a good and inevitable thing. You could spin many a thought-provoking conversation with younger viewers out of this movie, on everything from blended/non-traditional families, perseverance, loyalty, morality vs. nature, and the effects of mankind on the world—yet nothing in the film feels remotely preachy or didactic.

I also like the ending, which I won’t disclose, but both the climax and the resolution take a more balanced look at man’s role in the world and the nature of a family than the original film, creating a final conflict and a fade-to-black that are powerful and satisfying.

junglebook03Overall, this is really a well-crafted piece of work that includes some of the animated original’s songs, and Christopher Walken channeling Louis Prima is an interesting thing—even if it’s the one thing that doesn’t quite fit the film as a whole. The fact that it’s filled with talking animals, some of them cute little critters, and can charm without being cloying, without pandering, is itself an achievement to celebrate.

Of course Disney has played with its Jungle Book “franchise” several times between 1967 and now, so it’s not as though a single, untarnished classic was in danger of receiving its first mangling. But still, the energy, character and passion that Favreau and Co. put into this version does the original proud, updating it with only a slightly darker edge (not inappropriate to the Kipling stories) and a pacing and story that feels both modern and classic. In a summer choked with cynical, brutal “hero” movies about fistfights, this may be the adventure you can’t miss.