Review: Incredible, dark 'The Jungle Book' update thrills & delights
Fans of the '60s animated classic can rejoice: "The Jungle Book" (opening in theaters nationwide April 15) is the rare remake that improves upon the original in almost every single way possible. While the original was a fun little romp through the jungle, this update is a heartfelt and thrilling adventure that's unexpectedly every bit as fun-loving as the animated classic.
In short: Young Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) is forced to leave the jungle - the only home he's ever known - when the ferocious tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) threatens Mowgli and his wolf family. Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson and Christopher Walken also star. (Watch the trailer)
The first obvious question is 'Is this movie kid friendly'? Kids who can handle violence comparable to "Star Wars" or "The Lion King" can probably handle this version of "The Jungle Book" -- but it's probably a good idea to keep the teeny tiny little kids at home. Although this version has a lot in common with the classic animated Disney version (in terms of structure and characters), it also has some very intense moments. While Baloo the Bear and Bagheera the panther (voiced by Murray and Kingsley respectively) are caring and fun characters, even they can flip a switch and become ferocious beasts during some of the fight scenes. And Shere Khan and King Louie (voiced by Walken) are genuinely scary characters with virtually no cute or charming qualities.
Comparisons to the classic '60s animated version of this film are impossible to avoid - but the fundamental difference between these two (admittedly similar) adaptations is tone. The '60s animated version was little more than a series of loosely connected, light-hearted dance/song numbers. In contrast, this version is a very human story with heart and an adventure with thrills - a story that forces Mowgli to discover his identity against an intimidating enemy. While the '60s version is totally OK for the little kids, this admittedly darker version is geared better for older kids -- and it impressively retains a magical, fun-loving core. Ultimately, this version works on various levels: it is emotionally stirring, genuinely exciting and flat-out fun.
The Academy might as well just nominate "The Jungle Book" for Best Visual Effects right now. This film achieves something quite extraordinary: the CGI animals are simultaneously awesome photorealistic beasts as well as beautifully animated animals. This delicate balance is critical because it allows "The Jungle Book" to exist in the fuzzy area between live-action and animated film. The carefully crafted CGI animals move and look just like real animals - but they are also just cartoonish enough to allow them to emote. Baloo works as a cuddly and friendly bear you just want to hug -- and he also works as a fierce beast when he's forced to fight. Shere Khan moves precisely like a tiger on any nature documentary - but he's also slightly bigger than any normal tiger, which only adds to his intimidating nature. If nothing else, "The Jungle Book" is a landmark in CGI filmmaking.
The episodic nature of this film is the only thing preventing "The Jungle Book" from being a clear 5-star winner. Rudyard Kipling's literary classic was itself a compilation of short stories, so this film is inherently doomed to some choppy storytelling. At least this iteration threads the constant threat of Shere Khan as a throughline for this story that would otherwise be a odd series of jungle misadventures (as was the original animated film).
Final verdict: Director Jon Favreau has adapted this literary classic into a majestic, thrilling, endearing and visually stunning adventure that still retains its Disney charm. It is simply impossible to walk out of the theater without a beaming smile and/or humming "Bare Necessities."
"The Jungle Book" opens in theaters nationwide April 15. This film has a running time of 105 minutes and is rated PG for some sequences of scary action and peril.