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Entries in Jungle Book/The [2016] (1)

Friday
Apr152016

The Jungle Book (2016)

Chapter and Versus

On Monday, Disney announced plans to develop a sequel to their live-action remake of the 1967 animated classic, The Jungle Book, which opens today. I am profoundly disappointed by this news, and not because I dislike the new film. On the contrary, director Jon Favreau has created one of the most astonishing technical and dramatic achievements I'm likely to see this year. Disney continues to turn the remake trend on its ear by offering lush, transportive fantasies that stand on their own, and it would be nice to spend their arsenal of creative bullets developing other properties (even--gasp!--original ones). Like Maleficent and Cinderella before it, The Jungle Book is a relatively short, self-contained children's tale that has no business being a franchise.

I can't judge how well this version compares to the original, or to Rudyard Kipling's book, as I'm not familiar with either. Fans of both may find that Favreau and writer Justin Marks haven't covered much new ground, story-wise. But as a spirited adventure, and as a landmark of digital-effects innovation, the filmmakers break ground in ways that should send James Cameron and Zach Snyder back to the drawing board on those Avatar sequels and misguided DC Universe movies.

Neel Sethi stars as Mowgli, a young boy living among several species of wild animals deep in the jungle. Correction: talking wild animals. Yes, Mowgli sasses his panther mentor Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), and fits right in with his adoptive wolf parents Akila (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o), and sibling pups.

Into this harmonious ecosystem stalks a ruthless tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba). He threatens to kill everyone in sight if Mowgli is not delivered to him, and a debate erupts within the community as to whether or not they should give him up. Bagheera guides Mowgli sneak away, in search of the human village at the edge of the jungle; though Mowgli has never had significant contact with mankind, Bagheera reasons that they're his best chance for survival in a jungle ruled by Shere Khan.

From here, The Jungle Book becomes almost episodic. Mowgli has several misadventures on his way to the human world, which complicate his already mixed emotions about engaging it. He learns his origin story from a seductive python (Scarlett Johansson), becomes the unwitting servant of a con-artist bear (Bill Murray), and runs afoul of a singing primate mobster named King Louie (Christopher Walken). No prizes for guessing that Mowgli eventually returns to the place he calls home and faces Shere Khan, but Favreau, Marks, and Seethi sell the journey of self-reliance and identity that make the film's climactic confrontation a truly powerful experience.

None of this would have been as effective, or even possible, ten years ago (much less forty). Ninety-nine percent of The Jungle Book's animals and environments were created digitally,* and its place as a marker in the history of photo-realistic-animation milestones is guaranteed. From Terminator 2 to Jurassic Park to Star Wars Episode I to The Lord of the Rings to Avatar to Rise of the Planet of the Apes to The Jungle Book, the state of the art has progressed from relying on a blend of digital innovation and practical trickery to practically bridging the Uncanny Valley.

Unlike superhero movies and dumb summer blockbusters that treat the digital toolbox like a toilet, Favreau and company use everything at their disposal (including performance capture and some terrific voice work from the top-notch cast) to create wholly realistic, empathetic characters. In the middle of the film, I recalled a moment, years ago, when I revisited The Neverending Story. As child, I was convinced Falcor and the giant rock monster were real. As an adult, I just saw puppets and efforts that had been left in the dust by technological progress. For an hour and forty-five minutes, The Jungle Book reignited that eight-year-old's desire to believe in impossible creatures. To be honest, I was a tad disappointed when I got home from the screening, and my cat refused to tell me how his day was.

Switching gears, I wish to God I didn't know about the sequel. The knowledge alone shatters all surface-level analysis and invites the harder-to-ask questions about whether or not Disney set out to make art here, or if art was a cosmically fortunate bi-product of an utterly cynical business decision. It becomes too easy to strip away the layers, to see, for example, not a diverse and talented voice cast, but a bunch of Marvel movie contract players:

Then there's the man himself, Jon Favreau. It's fitting that the writer/actor/director who birthed the Marvel Cinematic Universe and re-birthed Robert Downey Jr. by casting him as Iron Man would lead another revolution in the way artists tell stories. But then I think of Chef, his phenomenal, deeply personal 2014 dramedy in which he exorcised all the demons he'd absorbed as a fallen Hollywood hit-maker. I'm a great admirer of Favreau (though not of Iron Man 2 or Cowboys & Aliens, which could be seen as the inciting incidents that led to Chef), but I can't help but wonder if this isn't déjà vu all over again.

I hope you're lucky enough (that is to say, unjaded enough) to neither understand nor care about this commentary. I hope you see The Jungle Book on the big screen, with someone you love, and that it makes you feel young and wild and invincible. Experience Favreau's awesome new world. Be inspired by it. Then close the book and move on.

*The movie doesn't have a post-credits stinger, but you may gasp when the single filming location pops up on-screen.

**Okay, that's not part of the Marvel Universe, but give it time.