Friday, April 15, 2016

Movie Review: The Jungle Book

The description "live-action remake" is tossed around when referencing this film, but that might be misleading. I'm not entirely certain whether this can meaningfully be called "live-action" at all. The film features one human actor alongside a cast of CG creations. I'm assuming parts of the set were practical, but probably only bits and pieces: this was filmed in LA, after all.

This isn't remotely a problem - on the contrary, it gets to the heart of why this movie is so groundbreaking. In The Jungle Book, Favreau creates a world from scratch. At times, it almost feels like you're being challenged to separate what's real from what's CG. The animals have weight and interact seamlessly with Mowgli, who in turn navigates through an expansive jungle logic dictates must be almost entirely computer animated. The blend of reality and fantasy has never been achieved this seamlessly.

But that's only the technical side of things. Without strong writing, acting, and directing, they're just tools. Fortunately, The Jungle Book delivers across the board.

If you think it's difficult to pin this down as live-action or animated, just try pinning down a genre. This is comedy, fantasy, adventure, horror, and even has a musical number. It pays homage to the Disney classic while doing a far better job adapting Kipling's source material.

Let me pluck out that "horror" piece for starters. Parents of young children may want to wait for DVD - this is not the sanitized, zany cartoon version from the 60's. Shere Khan is no longer the pampered, playful adversary you may remember - he's a powerful, relentless monster. And he's probably the third scariest character. Second is King Louie, re-imagined as a prehistoric great ape mob boss. Sound funny? Actually, it's hilarious, and his musical number (updated from the 1967 version) is wonderful. But when he meets resistance, he gets scary fast.

But even he's nothing to Kaa, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The last time Disney approached this, they played the character for comedy, casting the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh. This time, Kaa is the stuff of nightmares, ancient and wise. She has an almost alien intellect and power, like some sort of Lovecraftean horror.

I don't want to undersell the other elements, though. The comedy is hilarious - I spent a good portion of the film laughing. The action, likewise, is topnotch. The animals move beautifully, a fact exploited for some amazing sequences. The characters are well-developed and complex.

It shouldn't be all that surprising. Before making Iron Man, Favreau directed  Elf and Zathura, two movies which required an astonishing degree of nuance to manage the right tone, and in both cases, he knocked it out of the park. I like Iron Man quite a bit. Hell, I like Iron Man 2 and Cowboys and Aliens, two movies the rest of the planet seems to despise. But he's at his best when he making movies like this.

The Jungle Book is an incredible achievement that utilized cutting-edge effects to build a world and populate it with incredible characters. If you haven't already picked up tickets, you should do so immediately. Just leave young kids at home.

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