Author: JoAnne Hyde
Date: April 14, 2016

SYNOPSIS: In this reimagining of the classic collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling, director Jon Favreau uses visually stunning CGI to create the community of animals surrounding Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a human boy adopted by a pack of wolves. The appearance of a villainous tiger named Shere Khan (voiced byIdris Elba) forces Mowgli's guardian, the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), to shepherd the child to safety in the "man village." Along the way, the boy meets an affable, lazy bear named Baloo (Bill Murray), as well as a snake with hypnotic powers (Scarlett Johansson) and an orangutan (Christopher Walken) who wants to harness the power of fire. Lupita Nyong'o, Giancarlo Esposito, and Garry Shandling also lend their voices to this adventure tale.

There’s a danger in re-making a beloved animated classic like The Jungle Book as a live action (sort of) film. Jon Favreau directs this new version which boasts one human actor and a legion of CGI and motion-capture performances. The animated film was a light-hearted romp through a Disney style world where forest creatures and jungle creatures live in the same environment. The new film still has the mix-up of animals, but it has lost much of the light-hearted tone that endeared the animated classic to fans.

The human actor is Mowgli, the jungle-raised boy, played by newcomer Neel Sethi. He gives an athletic performance as he leaps over hazards on the trails and in the trees. Sethi does a skillful job seeing that he was acting alongside no human beings, other than those dressed in motion-capture green suits or stand-ins to give him markers. It’s just not possible to recreate the warm relationships of the characters in the animated film using this method although Sethi acts his little heart out. The warm fuzzies just aren’t there.

The voice cast is quite impressive. Lupita Nyong’o (Raksha) and Giancarlo Esposito (Akela) play Mowgli’s wolf parents, while Ben Kingsley voices Bagheera, the black panther who saved him as a baby and continues to mentor him. Kingsley also acts as narrator. Idris Elba voices the fierce and heartless Shere Kahn, the tiger whose only goal in life is to kill Mowgli.

When Bagheera decides that it’s time to reunite Mowgli with his own kind and they set out for the man village, they encounter the dangerous and helpful characters you expect. Mowgli almost falls under the fatal spell of the snake Kaa, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and then encounters the good-natured but manipulative bear Baloo, voiced by Bill Murray. Murray provides the most entertaining scenes in the film by far. King Louie, who was an orangutan in the original film, has been transformed into a menacing Gigantopithecus – never mind that those went extinct in the far past. Christopher Walken voices him as a much more dangerous and unpleasant creature than he was in the animated film. The “I Want to Be Like You” song is present, but in a sort of mafia-style, threatening manner.

All of the sets are done in CGI, and sometimes that’s painfully obvious. That being said, there are some impressive scenes, especially those involving the elephants. On a sad note, the late Gary Shandling has a small part voicing Ikki, the porcupine. It was his last performance.

The Jungle Book may be a little intense for small children – I heard one or two crying in the preview audience during some of the scarier scenes. School-aged and older kids will like it, but I’m not so sure about today’s jaded teens. However, it's a film that parents can enjoy along with their kids, but I don’t think it'll that will generate repeat viewings. - JoAnne Hyde


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