Thursday, April 14, 2016

Disney scores with another 'Jungle Book'

CGI animals and a strong voice cast help director Jon Favreau sell a familiar tale.

Adaptations of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book don't exactly make for fresh news. So when I first saw the title on a list of 2016 releases, I found it difficult to get excited about another jungle journey, even one equipped with a CGI menagerie.

As it turns out, Disney's Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau, is bright (even in 3D), appealing and in at least one inspired sequence, engagingly loopy.

The story focuses on Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a boy who was raised by wolves and suddenly finds himself targeted by a tiger named Shere Kahn (voiced by Idris Elba).

The story is narrated by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), the sagacious panther who first brought young Mowgli to Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o), the wolf who becomes his surrogate mother and who tries to instill him with the lore of the pack.

Elba gives voice to a convincing villain, a somewhat battered tiger who's motivated by a desire to keep fire out of the jungle. Shere Khan thinks it's not enough to exile Mowgli from the jungle by returning him to his human tribe. He wants to kill the boy.

In the early going, I half wondered whether Mowgli's flight through the jungle hadn't given Disney an excuse to produce a kiddie version of The Revenant, another wilderness survival epic. But Favreau balances the movie's convincingly dangerous situations with enough comic moments to keep fright in check.

To insure the success of its effort, Disney has surrounded first-timer Sethi with a strong voice cast. In addition to Kinglsey and Elba, you'll recognize Bill Murray as the voice of the conniving but good-spirited Baloo, a bear with a honey jones.

The movie even breaks into song with a Murray-voiced rendition of The Bare Necessities, which was used in Disney's 1967 animated version of The Jungle Book. The song seems awkwardly inserted because this version of Jungle Book isn't really a musical, but once you get past its slightly jarring arrival, the song is sort of fun.

Even though we never see him, Christopher Walken does scene-stealing work as the voice of King Louie, a giant orangutan with evil on his mind.

Louie wants Mowglie -- referred to by the animals as a "man cub" -- to return to his own kind, capture fire and deliver it to the power-hungry king who lives in an impressively created temple that has been overrun by all manner of monkeys.

Walken, too, is given a musical number, I Wanna Be Like You.

Animal purists may find this entirely anthropomorphic endeavor to be a little prone to cuteness. Despite Favreau's amazingly skillful use of CGI, the movie's spirit often follows a cartoon template with creatures (wolf cubs, for example) that are petting-zoo cuddly.

Although the movie expresses deep reverence for elephants -- all creatures bow before them -- it also makes sure to find a way to put a baby elephant into danger, an incident that provides the movie with an opportunity to showcase the human ingenuity that Mowgli possesses.

But there are also strangely alluring creatures that aren't quite as kid friendly: Ka, a giant snake voiced by Scarlett Johansson, tries to tempt Mowgli with her hypnotically seductive voice.

Favreau paces the movie at a speed that tends to help push criticism aside. Panthers with British accents? Why is it that some of the animals talk and some don't? And, most importantly, concerns about whether some of the realistically presented animal fights are too vivid for the youngest viewers to handle. The movie has been rated PG.

Overall, though, The Jungle Book proves entertaining and likable without delivering too heavy-handed a message about the way humans, the masters of fire, tend to destroy jungle habitats.

Stay put for the end credits, which are entertaining in their own right.

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