Friday, April 15, 2016

The Jungle Book Review

Recently I've been in the process of binge-watching all of the movies from Walt Disney Animation Studios in preparation for an epic blog post where I will reveal my list of personal favorite animated Disney movies. It wasn't my initial plan to go this in-depth with this project, but once I started watching these movies, I got carried away and have had a lot of fun with it. That blog post will most likely come your way next month, so stay tuned for that. I bring this up because as a part of this project, I made sure to pay special attention to The Jungle Book when that movie was up due to the fact that we will be getting two Jungle Book movies in the near future. The second one won't be here until late 2018, but will be Andy Serkis' motion capture masterpiece, which sounds exciting to me. So keep that in the back of your mind because right now it's time to discuss Disney's own live-action remake of their animated classic. I've not been super impressed with this trend so far of making live-action remakes of Disney's animated classics, but it's finally worked for me. I was a bit skeptic of this specific project, but I'm here to report that The Jungle Book delivers in a huge way!

Before I dive into this live-action remake, I first want to spend a bit of time discussing the animated movie so you can get an idea of where I'm coming from with this review. In order to rank these Disney movies, I've had to put on my critical glasses because otherwise it wouldn't be possible. In doing so, I realized that The Jungle Book actually has its fair share of issues. Yes, there's the childhood nostalgia that goes with it. Yes, there's the ultimate trump card of "it's made for kids!" Yes, the characters and songs are a lot of fun. But what's the story? And what purpose do all the characters have in that story? Exactly. Essentially The Jungle Book is a series of animated shorts with Mowgli in the jungle strung together with a very thin story of Bagheera taking Mowgli back to the man village. A lot of the side characters serve no purpose outside entertaining the kids and the villain Shere Khan doesn't show up till the last part of the movie and for some unknown reason decides he wants to kill Mowgli. As a fun little Disney flick meant for kids, this works. Sometimes simple is better. But as a spoiler, this won't show up on my upcoming list of favorite animated Disney movies.

However, if you're Disney and you're planning on making a live-action remake of The Jungle Book, you've got to do something different with this movie. Creating a carbon copy of the movie in live action like last year's Cinderella won't work. It would also probably be a bad idea to go way out in left field with this like they did with Maleficent. In my opinion, they needed to find a balance and I wasn't sure how they were going to accomplish this, which is why I personally was a little more skeptic over this than others. Cautiously optimistic would be a good way to describe my feelings. And that's why I can honestly say that this movie blew me away. First and foremost, I had my eye of scrutiny directly on the story. Based on the trailers, I was confident that the voice acting and the CGI would be just fine. But what were they going to do with this story. Were they going to go fun and silly with this or were they going to turn this into something epic? I was very pleased to learn that it is in fact the latter. The story in this movie is easily the best part. It's not just the wolves and Bagheera agreeing that it's time for Mowgli to move to the man village and having a lot of crazy adventures on the way. The story is engaging. It's emotional. It's powerful. It's intense. It's suspenseful. From beginning to end you are completely sucked into this universe.

The biggest factor in transforming this from a weak story into a strong story is the added involvement of Shere Kahn. As I mentioned before, in the animated version Shere Kahn doesn't show up until much later in the movie and you don't understand his motivations at all. For some reason we're just supposed to believe that the tiger is the dangerous one while the panther, the bear, and the pack of wolves are the friendly giants and the tiger wants to kill the man cub. That's it. Not in this one. Shere Kahn shows up right at the beginning and immediately instills his terrifying presence into the movie. For the entire run time, you are extremely worried that Shere Kahn just might show up at any instance. And he has some pretty darn good motivations in this. He's more than just a scary tiger. His position is that this boy doesn't belong in the jungle because he is a danger to everyone. Perhaps as a boy he's harmless, but boys grow up to be men and men are enemies to animals and the jungle. They hunt and kill animals. They burn down jungles. They are dangerous. This honestly makes you stop and think for a second because, yes, Shere Kahn has a very understandable and relatable point of view. Plus he's freaking scary on top of that. Honestly I think he's one of the best villains I've seen in any movie recently and I've been quite picky with my villains as of late.

With this in mind, we have a very good reason for our main characters to decide that Mowgli needs to leave the village. It's not just a pack of wolves decided randomly that he doesn't belong and a rule-bent black panther agreeing with them. Mowgli is in danger and they need to get him to the man village in order to keep him safe, otherwise Shere Kahn will stop at nothing until he's dead and he's willing to do some pretty crazy stuff to prove to everyone that he's for real. Following this fantastic introduction, we are then taken on quite the journey through the rest of the movie. And it isn't just a series of random adventures with random animals as Mowgli wanders through the jungle and gets separated from Bagheera on several occasions, every element to this movie has a purpose to it and every sequence does a great job of progressing the plot forward. Yes, we follow the same general storyline with the wolves, then the elephants, then Kaa, then Baloo, then the monkeys, but each sequence is sharpened up and in some instances completely revised in order to make it relevant and interesting. It's no longer a series of short stories. It's one cohesive story that is absolutely brilliant.

Let's now talk about the voice acting in this movie. Sometimes your immediate reaction to a remake of a movie you enjoy is naturally to be worried and scared. That actually wasn't the case with me. My worries arose later on as I thought about certain things more in depth. The reason why I was immediately sold was because of the voice cast. Just hearing who is voicing these characters got me excited because it seemed perfect. Turns out it is. I don't think they could've done a better job. I've talked a lot about Shere Kahn, so I might as well start with him and say Idris Elba's voice was a key factor in making him sound so menacing. Ben Kingsley is the perfect Bagheera. He actually sounds exactly Bagheera from the animated movie. Bill Murray was an absolute home run as Baloo. His comedic timing for everything was absolute gold, yet he was good at being serious when he needed to be. Lupita Nyong'o did a perfect job of acting as the concerned mother figure in Raksha. She really sold her scenes with Mowgli, making it possibly the best relationship in the movie. I wish we had seen more of Kaa in the movie, because Scarlett Johannson made for a really creepy snake. Much better than the Winnie the Pooh version of Kaa in the animated movie. And of course Christopher Walken as the giant King Louie was an absolute treat.

Perfect. Just perfect. There was also a lot more side characters and I found myself enjoying all of them. We even had new side characters in this that were all a lot of fun. Finally, as far as acting goes, I will finish up by talking about our one live-action character, Neel Sethi as Mowgli. I'm not going to lie, there were plenty of moments in this movie where the kid wasn't always at the top of his game, but all things considered he actually did an amazing job. Outside him, the whole movie is literally done via CGI. I don't know everything he had to work with, but I do know this was filmed in a studio in Los Angeles. They didn't fly out to an actual jungle to shoot this. They didn't create a jungle set for him to work with. He was probably just inside a studio somewhere in Los Angeles acting in front of a bunch of green screens and talking to absolutely nothing outside some props. It's one thing when you have a lot of practical effects to work with. It's a second thing to have sets built while having to pretend the creatures are there. But it's a much different thing when you are forced to pretend that you are in this world when in fact you have nothing to work with. So yes, huge props to this kid because this is something even experienced adult actors can struggle with.

Speaking of that CGI, I personally thought it was fantastic. Yes, I am on the side that if you have the option of using practical effects and building sets that you should do that. That's one of the many reasons why I thought Star Wars: The Force Awakens was done so well because they only used CGI when it was absolutely necessary. CGI should be a tool to use to enhance your movie, not the other way around. That said, if you're going to make a live-action movie using only CGI, you need to create the illusion that you used practical effects. The audience needs to buy into this world. In that sense, this movie is quite the masterpiece. If I didn't know beforehand how this movie was done, you could've convinced me that they shot it in an actual jungle. If the animals didn't start moving their mouths and talking like humans, you could've convinced me that they used actual trained animals. It's that good. It's impossible to predict how well this movie will hold up in 10 or 20 years from now, but as of today this is some of the best CGI work I have ever seen. I hope that this doesn't start a trend because I would still like to see actual sets and practical effects used, but I honestly think that this movie should be the textbook example of what to do if you're going to go the complete CGI route.

All in all, I was completely blown away by The Jungle Book. I do need to note that, although the only previous version I have mentioned of The Jungle Book is Disney's animated version from 1967, The Jungle Book has been made plenty of times before. This is not even the first time Disney themselves have done a live-action remake. But I will say that without a doubt, this is the best version of The Jungle Book that I have ever seen. Andy Serkis has a lot to live up to with his version in a couple of years. I have faith in that man, but with what Disney has just accomplished, he needs to conjure up quite the masterpiece if he is to top them because this one is great. I feel that Disney acknowledged that, although their animated classic is well loved, it's not without it's flaws. They took the elements of that movie that worked and they improved on the elements that perhaps don't hold up in order to give us the near perfect Jungle Book movie. This is everything it needed to be. I feel kids can still enjoy this, but adults especially will love it with how amazing, intense, and emotional the story is combined with the amazing voice work, great acting by Neel Sethi as Mowgli, and amazing CGI. Because of all that, I'm going to give The Jungle Book a 9/10.

P.S.- Make sure to stay through the end credits. No, there's no extra scene, but you do get a bonus song halfway through that's not one of the two songs that's in the movie.

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