Friday, 8 April 2016

The Jungle Book (2016)

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Jon Favreau.

Cast: Neel Sethi, (voices of) Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken.

"Soft kitty, warm kitty, potential child-eating kitty."
NOT that long ago in cinematic history, special effects reached a point where it became possible to put anything you could imagine on screen and have it look real – like, really real.

The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the ape of Peter Jackson's King Kong, the tiger in Life Of Pi, the worlds (and Jar Jar Binks) of the Star Wars prequels, the entirety of Avatar – for better or worse, the advent of computer animation meant photo-realistic digital creations that could sit smoothly alongside real world people and environments were just a million or so mouse-clicks away.

In hindsight, the aforementioned movies and their CG animals and settings (throw the simians of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes in there too) point directly to Favreau’s live-action version of Disney’s The Jungle Book. This film seems like an inevitability; as though the technology was being developed just so we could one day see a life-like take on Mowgli’s story without the spectre of animal cruelty hanging over it.

It’s a perfect mesh of subject matter and special effects, not unlike Life Of Pi and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes – two stories that benefited from tech wizardry finally catching up with the potentials of visual storytelling.

Favreau’s film owes more of a debt to Disney’s 1967 cartoon than Rudyard Kipling’s original tales, but is an intriguing mix of the two, while also striking out on its own occasionally with the narrative to find new directions. It follows Mowgli (Sethi), the “man cub” raised in the jungle by wolves, as he struggles to escape from the evil tiger Shere Khan (Elba) and return to civilisation with the aid of Baloo the bear (Murray) and Bagheera the panther (Kingsley).

The darker tone of Kipling’s work, which Walt Disney deliberately steered his version away from, is here in places, but so are a couple of the 1967 songs from The Sherman Brothers and Terry Gilkyson. As such, the movie moves in and out of the light and shade, but be warned that this may scare the pants off the younger kids – Shere Khan is a wonderfully malicious villain and some animals die (although in a bloodless, mostly off-screen fashion).

It’s the light-and-shade combo that is the biggest sticking point with the movie. Its photo-realism and occasional animal-on-animal violence sits awkwardly at times alongside, say, a giant ape voiced by Christopher Walken singing a song (yes, that really happens in the film).

There are also moments when The Jungle Book looks a bit like a computer game - CGI still has its limitations - but by-and-large it is a beauty to behold. The animals are amazing, as are the largely animated environments. Sethi, probably the only tangible thing in most of the scenes, rarely seems out of place alongside his digital counterparts.

The cast is generally impressive. Finding a Mowgli was apparently quite a challenge, but newcomer Sethi does a good job. There are a few Jake “Ani Skywalker” Lloyd-like moments, but they’re mostly forgivable.

Kingsley is a good match for Bagheera, while Elba is an even better one for Shere Khan – Elba drops menace into syllables like Dr Dre drops beats (ie. with ease), and it’s a frighteningly good voice performance. Murray has fun with his role although he runs dangerously close to letting Bill Murray trample over the top of Baloo the bear. Similarly, it’s impossible to separate Walken’s voice from Walken, even when it’s coming out of an animated Gigantopithecus. Walken plays King Louie like a mob boss and it’s kinda fun, but also kinda distracting.

Generally speaking, this re-imagining of The Jungle Book is impressive. It has a sense of wonder and spectacle to it often lacking in big blockbusters, genuinely offering up a visual feast we have not partaken of before, which is all the more impressive when you consider how many times this ‘book’ has been told.

But importantly, Favreau hasn’t lost sight of the heart and emotion at the centre of this story amidst the CG wizardry bringing it to life. This is still the moving tale of a boy struggling to find his place in the world, torn between his nurture and his nature, and all the positives and negatives that each side brings.

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