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Jungle Book, The (2016) (Blu-ray Review)

26 Aug, 2016 By: John Latchem

Street 8/30/16
Box Office $363.26 million
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG’ for some sequences of scary action and peril
Stars Neel Sethi. Voices of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken.

One of the benefits of animation is undoubtedly the potential to create scenes that would otherwise be impossible to film realistically. This ability of the medium was likely a primary reason people like Walt Disney were drawn to it, in that it allowed visionary filmmakers to express imagination to a degree previously only possible in prose and the mind’s eye of the reader.

In an age of advance computer graphics, such limitations are no longer a concern for filmmakers. Whether this is a good thing or not is likely to fuel debate for years to come, as directors become enthralled by their visual style at the expense of telling a good story.

A natural aspect of such a discussion, however, would be how Mr. Disney would view such techniques in light of his desire to bring fairy tales and other fantastical stories to life. And certainly there is a quaint aesthetic to classic animation that must be admired for its artistic value in a way that reality-simulating CG special effects would not be.

For the time being, however, the studio that Walt left behind seems content on rendering that discussion moot, as the current caretakers of his legacy move forward with countless projects to create live-action versions of those classic cartoons.

Perhaps it’s a bit ironic, then, that the live-action Jungle Book might be the best of the Disney retellings so far, given that it’s based on the last animated film that Walt had a hand in making before his death in 1966.

To say that this film stays true to the spirit of the original is an understatement. As he discusses in his entertaining and insightful feature-length commentary, director Jon Favreau used almost every opportunity he could to pay homage to the 1967 animated version, even going so far as to using the exact same book prop that was used in the earlier film’s opening scenes.

Favreau also expresses a desire to remain somewhat faithful to the original Rudyard Kipling book as well, and the end result is a bit of a mash-up of plot elements from those two primary sources. Favreau manages to achieve the rare remake double whammy, effectively stoking nostalgic love of the original while telling a compelling story in its own right. This is a fantastic film for every member of the family, young and old.

What’s also astonishing is that the only thing that’s actually real throughout most of the film is the little boy, Mowgli — the man-cub raised by wolves who must escape the wrath of the vengeful tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) by rejoining his own kind.

While I doubt the sequel will borrow too much from Disney's 2003 animated Jungle Book 2, a part of me is curious to see these characters end up in a live-action version of “TaleSpin.”

Mowgli is endearingly played by the young Neel Sethi, whose journey to the role is chronicled on the Blu-ray’s eight-minute “I Am Mowgli” featurette, and his ability to adapt to his artificial surroundings is rather remarkable if you think about it.

The film’s visual palette is so spectacular that it’s a shame the film’s 3D version wasn’t included as part of its first go-around on disc. As evidenced by the 35-minute “Jungle Book Reimagined” featurette, Mowgli’s jungle environment is almost entirely CGI, filmed on a soundstage covered in blue screens. But it looks so real viewers would be hard pressed to guess the landscapes were created in a computer, unless they knew better.

The ability to control filming conditions was the name of the game, and for that reason all the animals are CGI too. The illusion is a little less convincing here, which may owe to the fact that, just like in the original film, the animals can talk. Their designs are still a remarkable demonstration of photo-realism, each creature crafted to emphasis their particular role in the story.

The voice casting is equally impressive. The fact that the panther Bagheera sounds like Ben Kingsley instantly conveys his wisdom and authority in guiding Mowgli through the jungle. And Bill Murray is a natural choice for Baloo, the lazy bear who befriends Mowgli because the man-cub knows how to craft devices to retrieve honey.

Scarlett Johansson’s seductive voice serves well the deceptive python Kaa, though her talents are put to better use through her breathy end-credits rendition of the snake’s “Trust in Me” song from the original film.

And then there’s Christopher Walken as King Louie, which is a bit of casting we never knew we needed. For those not steeped in Disney lore, Louie isn’t from the Kipling books, but was created for the animated feature to be a king for the jungle apes who wants to know the secret of fire.

The creation of the Louie sequence is the subject of its own Blu-ray featurette, the three-minute “King Louie’s Temple: Layer by Layer.” What Favreau does with this character is genius, embedding Louie’s confrontation with Mowgli with hints of Apocalypse Now and King Kong. But the highlight is definitely the fact that Walken unabashedly breaks into a rendition of the character’s signature song, “I Wan’na Be Like You.”

Now, this version of The Jungle Book is not a musical, but one would be a fool to inherit the musical legacy of the animated version and not take advantage of it. And Favreau is no fool. From the opening notes, John Debney’s terrific musical score is infused with melodies from George Bruns’ music from the earlier film. And Murray and Sethi get to belt out a version of “The Bare Necessities” just like their animated counterparts. But Walken’s number is something else entirely.

Disney staple Richard Sherman, who with his brother Robert wrote most of the songs for the original Jungle Book (and indeed, most of the studio’s most popular films of the 1960s), helped out here with a quick re-write of the lyrics to fit the song into its live-action setting. Sherman and Favreau had previously crossed paths during 2010's Iron Man 2, when Sherman wrote a World’s Fair-type jingle for the film at the behest of Debney, who practically grew up at the Disney studio because his father worked there. It’s a small world, indeed.


About the Author: John Latchem

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