Sunday, April 17, 2016

Welcome to the Jungle: Jon Favreau Creates a Dazzling CGI World in “The Jungle Book”

Is it a misnomer to call “The Jungle Book,” Disney’s latest redo of an animated classic, a live action film? After all there’s really only one human character and everything else onscreen was created in a computer. Whether you wanna call it live-action or not, this version of “The Jungle Book” has some of the most impressive computer effects I’ve ever seen in a film. The so-called “uncanny valley” is almost all but dried up here. We’re constantly looking at animals and their movements and facial expressions are so lifelike it could easily fool some less informed moviegoers who may think there’s been some kind of scientific talking animal breakthrough. Visually appealing or not a movie has to also have a good story and interesting characters otherwise it’s wizardry for naught. Since the original Disney animated version of “The Jungle Book” was never quite one of my personal favorites, I have no problem declaring this updated version the definitive version of Rudyard Kipling’s collective works (though I, like many others I assume, haven’t seen the 1994 live action version).

The plot of “The Jungle Book” is simple enough but extremely effective and rewarding. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a little boy who’s abandoned as a boy and then raised by a pack of wolves. He also has a wise black panther named Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) who also watches over him. The film’s main villain is the Bengal tiger Shere Kahn (Idris Elba) who believes the boy doesn’t belong in the jungle living amongst animals and seeks to banish the boy or worse kill him. Bagheera helps guide Mowgli back to his human kind but after an ambush is quickly separated from the boy leaving Mowgli to fend for himself. Then Mowgli meets several other animals; including a scary run-in with a gigantic, hypnotizing snake named Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and a big lovable bear named Baloo (Billy Murray), not to mention a scene-stealing Christopher Walken as King Louie. The film is very vignette-like which really works and give the film almost a “road trip” type feel where you don’t quite know what adventure Mowgli is going to get caught up in next (unless of course you’re pretty familiar with the original cartoon).

The film works on multiple levels beyond the fact that the film is a visual wonder from beginning to end. The visual effects are so photorealistic you’ll be shocked to find out the filmmakers never set foot in an actual jungle. Sometimes the film is so realistic I could picture tiny kids leaving the theater in fear despite the film’s family-friendly rating. Sethi gives a rather impressive feature film debut performance considering his co-stars weren’t even there (though he shot his scenes with puppeteers who don’t appear in the final film). The film also works in some of the songs from the original Disney film in a way that don’t feel forced or out of place. After all, how could one watch a Disney version of “The Jungle Book” without hearing “The Bear Necessities?” The script from Justin Marks is a real winner with subtle themes about not fitting in or feeling different from those around you. Director Jon Favreau who can go from creating little tiny CGI-free films like “Made” or “Chef” to big budget effects-driven films like “Iron Man” and “Cowboys & Aliens” feels very much in his element here finding the right beats of humor, emotion, and action.

“The Jungle Book” is an amazingly well-crafted, entertaining, visual wonder of a film (and even worth the extra bucks for 3D if that’s your thing). The film is thoroughly entertaining, impressive acting and voiceover work, and has a surprising amount of emotional depth and some nice comic relief. I’d be genuinely surprised if it doesn’t win an Oscar next year for its effects; they’re some of the finest ever put to film. I can’t imagine a “live-action” “Lion King” film being very far away.  GRADE: A- 

Super Bowl Trailer for The Jungle Book on TrailerAddict.