[Screen It]

"THE JUNGLE BOOK"
(2016) (Neel Sethi, voice of Bill Murray) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Adventure: When a vindictive tiger threatens to harm others if he isn't given a "man-cub" to kill, other animals in the boy's life decide he should be returned to his own kind for his own safety and that of others in the jungle.
PLOT:
Mowgli (NEEL SETHI) is a boy who lives in a jungle filled with a menagerie of all sorts of animals. When a tiger, Shere Khan (voice of IDRIS ELBA), killed his father years ago only to run off after having his face burned by a torch, the toddler was found by Bagheera (voice of BEN KINGSLEY), a wise panther who's since helped raise the "man-cub" along with the help of a wolf pack led by Akela (voice of GIANCARLO ESPOSITO) and Raksha (voice of LUPITA NYONG'O Louie). Mowgli thinks he's a wolf and lives like one, and everyone seems content with the unusual arrangement.

When a severe drought during the dry season forces a peace truce among all of the animals that have assembled at a watering hole, however, Shere Khan arrives and smells out the boy and wants his revenge. Bagheera eventually realizes it's in everyone's best interest if he leads Mowgli to a human encampment, but an attack by Shere Khan leaves him injured and Mowgli on the run.

Now alone in the jungle, he ends up saved from a hypnotic python, Kaa (voice of SCARLETT JOHANSSON), by the honey-loving, laid-back bear, Baloo (voice of BILL MURRAY), who ends up joining forces with Bagheera to do the same again when gargantuan orangutan King Louie (voice of CHRISTOPHER WALKEN) has his monkey goons kidnap the boy.

He offers Mowgli protection in exchange for getting him the humans' "red flower" -- fire -- that he'll then use to rule the jungle. But their biggest concern is keeping the boy safe from Shere Khan who's steadfast in his determination to find and kill the boy.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
I know I've quoted W.C. Fields and his famous "don't work with children or animals" line before, but it keeps coming up as appropriate from time to time in filmmaking. Of course, he was commenting on the worry of being upstaged by them as well as their tendency to be uncontrollable.

I'd like to add that both groups are also wild animals. Okay, while that's technically true, kids aren't quite the same. And by that I mean it's not usually a given that no matter how well "trained" they might be, they could easily turn around and main or kill you in an instant. Plus, such movie wildlife is occasionally known to be as temperamental as some Hollywood stars and thus don't always follow direction like they should.

Enter special effects animals that have come a long way since the days of stop-motion animation that might have looked cool to us kids back in the day, but were decidedly less than photo-realistic in appearance and thus required a great deal of suspension of disbelief. Nowadays, if the budget is big enough, you'd be hard pressed to tell such creations apart from real critters, thus allowing filmmakers the leeway to go ape, so to speak, in using them in their films.

And if there's any movie outside of one related to Noah's Ark that needs that, it would be one based on Rudyard Kipling's "Jungle Book" tales. While some viewers might remember the 1994 live action film starring Jason Scott Lee (that mostly used trained animals but did utilize a little CGI work on the big snake), most are likely familiar to one degree or another with Disney's musical cartoon from 1967. Not only was that the last film that Walt Disney worked on, but it also featured a number of catchy tunes, including "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wan'na Be Like You."

While that film spawned a poorly received sequel in 2003, the response (and resultant box office) is likely going to be quite more upbeat for the live action version that arrives in theaters this week. Directed by Jon Favreau (the first two "Iron Man" movies) who works from a script by Justin Marks, the film briefly features those two songs, but otherwise is a darker and more nightmare inducing version of Kipling's tale than its far lighter predecessor.

That's not to say it's not for kids (it features talking animals interacting with a boy protagonist, after all, along with plenty of lighter and sometimes funny moments), but parents should be cautioned if they're thinking of allowing very young kids to see this. And that's because unlike an animated film and what would have been possible trying to use real animals, the CGI ones here appear real, as does the related peril they present.

But older kids will likely eat it up, as might nostalgic adults wanting to hear what the likes of Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley and other A-list Hollywood talent can do voicing the various animal characters. While I found all of them at the top of their vocal game (including Scarlett Johansson in a brief bit as a hypnotic and hungry python), some might be taken out of the film at times upon hearing Murray and Walken who are easily identifiable to the ear (but get some of the best parts).

The only notable human is played by newcomer Neel Sethi who inhabits the Mowgli part with ease, and believably interacts with the animals who weren't there during filming in a jungle setting that was mostly (if not fully) also created in the computer. It all looks completely real that you wouldn't know otherwise, and the 3D adds to the lush look rather than feeling like nothing more than an added cash grab gimmick.

While not quite matching the lofty standard set earlier this year by "Zootopia," this talking animal flick easily takes home the silver medal, what with its pleasing mixture of action, drama, high adventure, comedy and memorable characters. Engaging and entertaining from start to finish, "The Jungle Book" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed April 11, 2016 / Posted April 15, 2016


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