Sunday, April 24, 2016

"The Jungle Book"

 5 / 5 

Here, at last, is the validation of 90 years of experimentation, of trial and error, of overthinking things and underthinking things and making movies that have combined animation and live action even as technology becomes ever more sophisticated.

To find the cinematic roots of The Jungle Book, you'd have to go back much, much further than Walt Disney's 1967 animated film, or even 1942's lush Technicolor adventure, you'd have to go back almost to when Rudyard Kipling wrote the stories about Mowgli, Baloo, Bagheera and Shere Khan.  The stories were published in 1894, and less than 30 years later, while Kipling was still alive, Walt Disney's own Alice comedies took a little live-action girl and placed her into an animated realm.

In the ensuring years, we've seen Uncle Remus and Mary Poppins cavorting in animation, while Ray Harryhausen combined live-action with stop-motion creatures, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? created a convincing world in which "toons" and humans lived together, then all of that gave way to computer-generated animation that made the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park and the planets of the Star Wars prequels and the adventure of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but all of that and everything else -- the Harry Potters and the Marvel movies and the Padingtons, it seems, was just a warm up.

The Jungle Book is a visual masterpiece, a movie that so thoroughly and entirely convinces us that what we're seeing is real, it sometimes feels like a reinvention of the movies themselves.  But being a visual marvel doesn't always equate to being an entirely satisfying film, as Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace so famously proved. Likewise -- despite all the tongue-clucking certainty among particular groups of film enthusiasts lately -- The Jungle Book proves that being artificial does not require sacrificing storytelling, humanity or that all-too-rare quality in movies these days, joy.

The Jungle Book is brimming with joy.  This is the kind of happy, warm-hearted family film that Walt Disney himself might have made, one that cuts its sweetness with danger, peril and fear, which is entirely appropriate for a family film, because kids can learn from magical movies that life can be downright scary sometimes.  But the dangers Mowgli faces are those of high adventure, a spirit entirely befitting both Kipling's source material and the 1967 animated movie that largely inspired this one.

The Jungle Book is anchored by a sparkling, precocious performance by Neel Sethi as Mowgli.  Not only does he succeed at a task that has stymied most older performers -- that is, turning in a convincing performance against green screens and imaginary characters -- but he gives Mowgli a new dimension, a wry wit and intelligence, and a deep insistence that because his fate brought him into the jungle as a baby, the jungle should always be his home, no matter what anyone thinks.

The person (because the movie smartly insists on calling the animals "people") who most wants Mowgli out of the jungle is the tiger Shere Khan, who was physically and emotionally scarred by his only previous encounter with man -- which happened to involve tiny Mowgli.  Though Mowgli has been protected by wolves his entire life, Shere Khan becomes doggedly determined to hunt down the "man-cub" and expel him from the forest.  In this version of The Jungle Book, the Shere Khan-Mowgli dynamic is every bit as vibrant and urgent as, say, Valjean and Javert or Luke and Vader.  It's mythic stuff, and the movie treats it with exactly the right weight and seriousness.

Once Shere Khan flushes Mowgli from his wolf pack, the panther Bagheera promises to get the boy to safety.  But Mowgli and his protector get separated, which leads Mowgli on a series of adventures that bring him to such familiar characters as Kaa the snake, Baloo the bear and King Louie the -- no, not orangutan, but gigantopithecus, which is, basically, a really, really, really big orangutan.

The Jungle Book owes a lot of its success to the voice actors who bring these characters to life: Lupita Nyong'o and Giancarlo Esposito as Mowgli's wolf parents, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, Bill Murray as Baloo, Christopher Walken (the only slightly over-the-top performance) as King Louie and a host of familiar voices.  But they wouldn't be as effective without Neel Sethi as Mowgli; had he been just a little off, the movie wouldn't have worked, but it does, brilliantly, because he's so perfect.

Disney's insistence on remaking its animated hits as live-action movies may be a move unabashedly, even crassly, aimed at making money, but if Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella and now Jon Favreau's Jungle Book are the direction it's all heading (rather than Tim Burton's aggressively unpleasant Alice in Wonderland), then perhaps the whole enterprise can be justified.  So far, at least, The Jungle Book isn't simply the best of these movies, it's also, quite unexpectedly, the best movie of the year.

Viewed April 24, 2016 -- Cinerama Dome


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