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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Jungle Book (2016)

The 2016 version of The Jungle Book, one of Disney's recent live-action remakes of their animated films, won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. But I wonder if it isn't just an animated film with one kid actor? Making The Jungle Book into a live-action film was going to require a lot of effects, because it features talking animals, wild animals. But this film takes it one further by making everything, including the jungle, CGI.

It's the familiar tale by Rudyard Kipling, of a boy literally raised by wolves, watched over by a stern panther, and hunted by mean tiger. Along the way he makes a friend, the bear Baloo, who steals the show. The conflict of the story, along with the tiger, is whether the boy, Mowgli, belongs with humans, whom he does not know, or whether he should stay in the wild.

At first I found the film disorienting, as the effects, though state of the art, are still not realistic. It was kind of jarring to see a very real boy (Neel Sethi) playing to animated figures. It's been done before, and as long ago as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, when Bob Hoskins go to Toontown, it's been done better (of course, that did not require the kind of detail that this film does).

But then the story took over. Jon Favreau directs, and he manages to make the film a story of the harshness of the wild, as well as just sentimental enough. The film really doesn't pick up until about halfway through, when Baloo, voiced by an inspirational choice, Bill Murray, appears. Baloo is a sloth bear (I'd never heard of them before) which are native to India, and is a kind of con man, tricking Mowgli to get him honey (he's Winnie the Pooh more than Gentle Ben). One of the two songs that carry over from the film, "Bare Necessities," (the original "Hakuna Matata") is sung, and Murray gives the bear some delightfu line readings, such as when he goes to rescue Mowgli and says, "Do I have the right monkey temple?"

That's when Mowgli is held captive by King Louie. In the animated film he's an orangutan, but since there are none of those in India, they change him to an extinct giant ape, the gigantopithecus. Louie's big number is "I Wan'na Be Like You," but Christopher Walken singing it, with rhymes to gigantopithecus, is nothing like Louis Prima's in the old film.

Other big stars in the voice cast are Idris Elba, very menacing as Shere Khan, the pissed-off tiger, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera the panther, and Scarlett Johansson, who replaces Sterling Holloway as Kaa, the python (she later sings "Trust in Me" over the closing credits). But Murray, like Phil Harris did in 1967, steals the show.

I found the film mostly enjoyable, although I'm sorry that the tiger, one of my favorite animals, is the villain, while wolves and panthers are made heroic. Somewhere a tiger is shedding a tear.

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