Jungle Book Swings Into Theaters and We Approve

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If you had asked me five years ago about a live action remake of The Jungle Book, I would have rolled my eyes and quickly moved the on in the conversation.

It’s not that I’m against remakes as a concept.  I love the idea of tackling time-tested classics for a new generation and giving flawed projects a second chance.  I loved The Magnificent Seven.  I thought that The Departed was easily the best movie of 2006.  I am one of the only ardent defenders of A Nightmare on Elm Street running around in public today.

It’s also not that I didn’t like Disney “messing with my childhood.”  I took a kind of nihilistic glee in watching Dragonball Evolution when it came out, and I knew that it was going to be terrible coming into it.  Besides, I never really liked The Jungle Book growing up, and even now can only muster the barest interest in popping it in to watch.

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The problem with the idea — on the face of it, at least — was Disney’s track record with live action remakes of their animated classics.  I’d seen Alice in Wonderland.  I’d seen 101 Dalmatians.  I didn’t need to see The Jungle Book.

That is, that would have been my attitude going into the movie five years ago.  Since then we’ve gotten that fascinating Maleficent and the utterly magical Cinderella.  Both are exceptional films that critically reexamine the original films through almost seven decades of social evolution.

While faithful to the original narratives, they intelligently reimagined them into unique, shockingly high quality films in their own right.  They weren’t just shameless cash-grabs (although they were certainly that too), they were a new set of classics for a new generation of movie-goers.

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So when I found out that there was not only going to be a Jungle Book remake coming out, but that it would be directed by Jon Favreau (of Iron Man fame) and star Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson and Christopher Walken, my initial reaction was not one of revulsion nor disdain, but of genuine, childlike excitement.  Given the direction that Disney’s taken with movies like Maleficent, Cinderella and Into the Woods, I was confident that they would not only make a good movie, but likely one of the year’s best.

And did they ever deliver.  The Jungle Book is absolutely sensational.  It is the true beginning of the blockbuster season: if not in fact, than in spirit.

It’s easily the best merger of big budget special effects and A-list talent since The Force Awakens, and quite honestly gives that movie a run for its money in terms of its visuals.  It blends physical sets and special effects with seamless effort.

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Writer Justin Marks and director Jon Favreau know exactly what could be trimmed from the earlier film and what was essential.  While it was obviously important to include the elephants on parade, they are treated with an almost mystical significance rather than the semi-comical music number poking fun at their martial leader.  While Kaa’s attempts to eat Mowgli are used to emphasize the omnipresent dangers of the jungle, it trades in her hopelessly ineffectual attacks with a darker, more seductive assault.  And those stupid vulture’s that kill the narrative’s momentum in the animated film?  Completely gone here.

These changes to the film help to streamline the narrative into better paced, better focused and generally more interesting story.  Emphasis is placed on Mowgli and his lupine family, both his attempts to fit in with the pack and their attempts to protect him from Shere Khan.  Show-stopping musical numbers are replaced — or at least followed up by — show-stopping set pieces.

Walken’s King Louie is the perfect cross between Vito Corleone and King Kong.  Johansson’s Kaa screams “bad touch” in a way that we haven’t seen since Sarah Jessica Parker’s witch in Hocus Pocus.  Kingsley’s Bagheera is developed into a more well-meaning father and Murray’s Baloo into a more “Uncle Buck”-esque buddy toward Mowgli than ever before.  And all of it absolutely works in service to the film.

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That’s not to say that the film is without its shortcomings.  Although born for the part he plays, Bill Murray sounds uncharacteristically low-energy throughout the movie.  Additionally, he and Mowgli don’t interact for quite as long as I would like to before they hit a tough patch in their relationship.  Although decent enough for what they needed him to do, it is pretty obvious in certain parts of the movie that Neel Sethi is a thirteen-year-old kid in his first actual movie role.

While deservedly rated PG (for “some sequences of scary action and peril), it is far closer to the PG-13 end of the spectrum than it is the G end.  Shere Karn is terrifyingly reminiscent of The Lion King‘s Scar (especially in the film’s climax) and will certainly terrify younger audience members.  Kaa’s seduction and near consumption of Mowgli has the menacing air of something a touch more adult than typical “kids’ fair.

When all is said and done, however, Jungle Book is hands down the best movie not named Zootopia in theaters right now.  It’s an exciting new take on the franchise that actually made a Jungle Book fan out of me.  It’s a near-perfect family adventure that’s just in time for summer; just maybe think about leaving the really little ones at home.

Rating: 8/10

Buy on BluRay: Yes

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