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Welcome to the Jungle!

When The Walt Disney Studios announced plans to revisit some of their most classic tales and turn them into live-action films, I was extremely skeptical.

While reboots, sequels, and remakes have become common place in Hollywood, tinkering with some of the most beloved movies of all time bordered on sacrilege.  To my surprise, the live-action adaptation of CINDERELLA worked far better than I could have ever expected, and with Disney’s most recent production of THE JUNGLE BOOK, it appears that the studio has found a way to honor their previous efforts while making them feel fresh and new.

Jon Favreau’s JUNGLE BOOK transports the viewer to the beautiful and dangerous realm of the jungle.  In the opening scene, young Mowgli (Neel Sethi, in an incredible debut performance) races amongst the treetops in an effort to flee from an unseen creature.  He seemed to be putting distance between he and his pursuer, until a branch breaks and he tumbles to the ground.  Almost immediately, the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) springs upon him, and gives him further lessons on how to evade danger.  Mowgli then returns home to a pack of wolves, where he has been raised by Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) since he was toddler.

Much like Disney’s animated classic, the film follows the trials and NP-2tribulations of Mowgli as he is escorted back to humanity with the help of Bagheera.  Seeing the boy’s presence as a dangerous sign of what is to come, the vicious and feared tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) makes it clear to the wolves and every other four-legged jungle dweller, that he aims to destroy the boy.  Rather than allowing the innocent Mowgli to meet his demise at the paws of the ferocious feline, Bagheera promises the wolves that he will transport the boy back to safety.

During the trip back to the “Man Village,” Shere Khan launches a surprise attack, and tries to capture the boy.  Bagheera springs into action, initiating a fierce battle with the tiger that allows Mowgli to hitch a ride on a wildebeest and head towards safer ground.  From this point on, the man-cub is forced to make his way on his own and faces a number of perils along the way.

THE JUNGLE BOOK features plenty of dialogue and scenes that pay homage to the 1967 animated film, but also finds many ways to set itself apart.  Sure, NP-1Baloo (voiced by the impeccable Bill Murray) is as funny and lovable as ever, and Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) does everything in her power to turn Mowgli into a meal, but even these moments feel like you are seeing them for the very first time.  There is no doubt that the voice-talent cast aids in the entertainment value of the production.  Elba’s menacing tones are a perfect fit for the seething Shere Khan, and Christopher Walken is both hilarious and unnerving as the larger-than-life King Louie.  As excellent as these performances were, however, there is no denying that it is Sethi and the mind-blowing special effects that cause THE JUNGLE BOOK become a must-see family adventure.

While it was apparent that the film was going to rely heavily on CGI to bring the animals to life, from its earliest moments, this fact does not illicit a second thought.  The world that Favreau has created is completely believable, and it is easy to lose yourself in its beauty and wonderment.  The creatures themselves look far more realistic than any I can recall seeing on the screen.  From movements to mannerisms, Favreau and his crew found a way to do much more than simply deliver on the novelty of talking animals.   He managed to execute the task of creating a lush, beautiful, and occasionally foreboding environment that was categorically believable.  This landscape works particularly well in large-screen formats such as RPX and IMAX, where the film becomes more than just a movie; it evolves into a fully immersive experience.  NP-3
As outstanding as the technical wizardry was, the stand-out-star of the production is 13-year-old Sethi who is flawless as the lovable Mowgli.  With wide-eyes and a giant heart, his performance is what ultimately allowed the film to succeed.  His interactions with friends and enemies alike are completely natural, and encapsulate the childish naivety and resolve of a boy in his perilous predicament.  It’s difficult to fathom the actor working in front of a green screen, because the suspension of disbelief is so complete, that you truly believe he is floating on the belly of Baloo, and swinging from the vines of an ancient tree.

Parents should note that this film is spectacular in virtually every regard, but it is not intended for very young viewers.  Not only does THE JUNGLE BOOK deal with familiar Disney themes such as love and loss, but it does so in a way that can be sudden, and jolting.  Rest assured that every scene involving Shere Khan is blistering with intensity, and often contains combat and violence.  These moments are devoid of blood, but the snarls and savagery may frighten young viewers.  If they can handle sequences such as these, however, you will be more than happy that you decided to take the plunge and delve deep into this JUNGLE.

A special thanks goes to Regal Cinemas at Destiny USA for allowing me to attend this month’s film in the RPX format.

Brian Miller