3 stars (out of 4)
Let’s face it: An unnecessary live-action take on a beloved classic story featuring celebrity voices and a truckload of big-budget CGI effects could have been a very real disaster.
Best-case scenario, you walk out of the theater ruing that greedy and lazy movie studios can’t conjure up an original idea. Worst-case scenario, your childhood is ruined. Doubly worse scenario, you end up with Pan.
Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Elf) has somehow heard your concerns. And he has delivered a heartwarming winner in The Jungle Book (out April 15). A dazzling, charming and utterly immersive 3-D experience, it’s sure to capture the imagination of moviegoers of all ages.
The marvelous animated Disney feature, perhaps best known for the song “The Bare Necessities,” was originally released back in 1967 and hasn’t been in theaters since 1990. (The movie itself is based on Rudyard Kipling's 1894 story collection.) So here’s a primer in case you’re fuzzy on the details: As a baby, young Mowgli was abandoned in the jungle. He was lovingly raised by wolves and now lives peacefully in the animal kingdom — that is, until his life is threatened.
We’re thrown into this enchanting world of lions and tigers and bears (oh, my!) before Disney’s Magic Kingdom logo vanishes from the screen. In a flash, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is running through the rain forest alongside Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), a wise black panther who serves as his mentor. Soon, we meet his protective family, including mother wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). Enter sneering tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a villain able to strike fear into the hearts of animals of all sizes. He demands this exotic “boy cub” be turned over to him. Sensing the danger, Bagheera sends Mowgli through the sprawling vista to rejoin his own kind.
Mowgli’s adventure is a nonstop feast for the eyes. You won’t know where the real-life nature ends and the special effects begin — and here’s hoping Favreau doesn’t reveal the magician’s tricks on a Blu-ray extra. Indeed, let’s choose to believe he actually filmed that breathtaking stampede of elephants.
Each of Mowgil’s steps leads to an intriguing development. First he’s seduced and nearly devoured by a female snake, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson). Then he befriends a bear, Baloo (Bill Murray, providing some droll comic relief), who persuades him to climb a wall, persevere against a swarm of bees and knock down honeycombs. Just when Mowgli appears to be safe, he gets an offer he tries to refuse from a Mafia-king-like simian (Christopher Walken).
Newcomer Sethi beat out roughly 2,000 fellow wide-eyed kids for the role, and it’s easy to see why he got the nod. His Mowgli is adorably spunky as he swings from vines wearing only red shorts and a smile. The true stars, though, are those stunning jungle animals. Forget that we’re looking at digital wizardry — this diverse array of creatures adds vivid personality to the jungle. Elba’s ferocious, revenge-minded feline in particular is as sinister as Scar from The Lion King.
Speaking of a scarring experience … Parents should note that like most Disney offerings, this one doesn’t go down like a spoonful of sugar. Shere Khan is fierce — as in, he-kills-an-innocent-wolf fierce. And in this version, the action isn’t interwoven with breezy musical interludes. Aside from a verse here and there, nobody is breaking out into song.
Come to think of it, the narrative itself is like a PG-rated version of The Revenant. The grizzly bear may be cuddlier, but the darker violence will frighten kindergarten-age children.
So be a bit wary before you go wild. But in a wonderful tale in which a boy learns the importance of friendship and loyalty, perhaps this is the perfect opportunity for young cubs to earn their moviegoing stripes.
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