Director Jon Favreau's "The Jungle Book" is an exquisite movie-going experience. Based on the stories by Rudyard Kipling, and much different from Walt Disney's 1967 animated version, this combination of live action and CG is breathtaking to behold.
Mowgli is played with wide-eyed wonder and true artistry by then 12-year-old Neel Sethi. He is the only human character in "The Jungle Book", everything else, including the jungle, is computer generated.
Mowgli, the man-cub, is found as an infant in the jungle by the panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), who gives him to Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o) and Akela (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito), the mother and alpha-male father of a family of wolves. Mowgli learns the ways of the wolf pack and considers himself a wolf. But his happiness is relatively short-lived when the ferocious tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) finds him and vows to kill him.
Bagheera insists that he accompany Mowgli back to the settlement of man, which possesses the "red flower" that terrifies every creature in the jungle, including Shere Khan. Mowgli and Bagheera become separated, which places Mowgli in danger from the hypnotic snake, Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and the mighty ape, King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken).
But his new bear pal, Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray) and Bagheera come to the rescue, only to lose him again when Mowgli learns of Akela's fate at the paws of Shere Khan. He knows he will have no peace until the vengeful tiger is taken care of once and for all.
Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks have taken Kipling's iconic tale published in 1894 and given it a whole new life. It's a stunning adaptation, and much darker than Disney's 1967 movie. At the time, Walt Disney himself felt that the early sketches were too serious, and lightened it with a couple of tunes which are still beloved today.
This film, though faithful to the animated one we all saw as children, shares more from Kipling in that it demonstrates ever clearly the dangers that exist in the jungle --- even for a boy who is raised in that environment. It's quite frightening in parts, especially in the first 30 minutes. One little boy in our screening exclaimed very loudly, "I don't like this movie!" after one particularly scary scene. The adults chuckled, but I could see his point.
Despite those perilous moments, "The Jungle Book" is joyful and delightful. Sethi is magical as this brave, clever young boy making his way and coming of age. A search of 2000 kids was done worldwide to find just the right child to portray Mowgli, and Sethi is astonishing. Because the movie is all about Mowgli, the wrong choice would have proven disastrous. But Sethi is up to the task, and turns in a masterful performance.
Favreau pretty much let Murray have free reign as Baloo, and anyone who is a fan will be thrilled. He's hilarious, as always, providing much of the comic relief, but he's also capable of magnifying the bonds of friendship Baloo shares with Mowgli. It's difficult to imagine anyone else giving voice to such an iconic character as Baloo.
The rest of the voice cast is equally terrific. I love Johansson as Kaa --- her silky smooth voice is mesmerizing --- such a treat. And Kingsley and Elba are both stellar as predators of the jungle --- one a mentor, the other a killer. But it is Walken who's a "killer" --- he's a hoot as the real "king" of the jungle, Louie, who must possess the red flower.
"The Jungle Book" is an incredibly beautiful film to watch. It was created by multiple Oscar-winning artists, too numerous to list. And the original score by Emmy and Oscar winner John Debney certainly adds to the total enjoyment. Not all films available in 3-D should be seen in 3-D, but I recommend it highly for "The Jungle Book". And there are no rules that you must have a child in tow. Everyone should experience this exceptional film.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
Actor/director Jon Favreau has had what you could call a checkered career. His original "Iron Man" was a certified smash, while his "Cowboys and Aliens" was just bad. But he has hit the proverbial jackpot with "The Jungle Book", based on Rudyard Kipling's work, and brilliantly conceived by screenwriter Justin Marks. Favreau has masterminded a film destined to be a classic, something moviegoers will clamor to see again and again.
If adults shy away from this picture because it looks like a children's movie, that would be a mistake. It's computer generated and the animals have human characteristics --- they talk --- but they look like real creatures from the jungle. The only human presence is Mowgli (a sensational performance by then 12-year-old native New Yorker Neel Sethi), the man-cub raised by wolves.
All the other characters are voiced by stars like Bill Murray (Baloo, the bear), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera, the panther), Idris Elba (Shere Khan, the nasty tiger that makes Jeremy Iron's Scar from "The Lion King" look nice), Lupita Nyong'o (Raksha, the wolf), Christopher Walken (King Louie, the mammoth ape), and Scarlett Johansson (Kaa, the snake). The late Garry Shandling also has a voice role.
In fact, parents should be cautioned that "The Jungle Book" is not for very young kids. Ten minutes into our screening, a little boy told his mother that he didn't like this movie --- the beginning, especially, is dark and scary.
But it's an exciting story, filled with hilarious sight gags, humorous dialogue, and a fabulously comic performance by Murray. Despite Bagheera's admonitions to Mowgli not to use his human "tricks" to get ahead, like snagging high-hanging apples or scooping water out of the river, the boy doesn't listen. Instead, the resourceful "man-cub" follows his instincts to rescue a baby elephant, one of the more poignant sequences you'll see in any film.
For once, the use of 3-D is justified. Stick around for the closing credits for some of the best utilization of three-dimensional technology you're likely to experience. And the filmmakers throw in small touches along the way. Those closing credits feature moving pages in a storybook -- watch for the baby turtle and its mama.
One final thought: the next time I leave a dirty spoon in the sink, and Jeanne asks "Were you raised by wolves?" --- I can bring up Mowgli and say, "Yes, and proud of it!".
Opinion: Strong See It Now!