By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It’s a jungle up there.

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Or, at least, that’s what you’ll be saying to yourself as you watch The Jungle Book, even though you know that it’s just an illusory product being pulled out of a movie magician’s bag of tricks.

And: Wow, what tricks.

The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling’s classic nineteenth-century collection of short stories that told the tall tale of a boy raised by wolves, has been turned into more than a few movies of different types, the most memorable of which might well be 1967’s animated musical version.

But this particular PG-rated reimagining, which creates more of a sense of danger than its playful animated predecessor, is the only one so far to offer seamlessly integrated, photo-realistic jungle animals.

And they come to us in a staggering succession of illusions.

 

(3½ stars out of 4)

(3½ stars out of 4)

 

Newcomer Neel Sethi, an endearing natural – and the only live-action actor in a movie dominated by performance-capture creatures — plays “man-cub” Mowgli, who is separated from his parents after a tiger attack in the jungle and comes to be raised by wolves.

Providing the perfect voices for those conversational feature creatures are Scarlett Johansson as the hypnotic python Kaa, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera the narrating panther, Idris Elba as the fearsome tiger Shere Khan, Bill Murray as Baloo the laid-back bear, Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha the maternal wolf, and Christopher Walken as wild King Louis, the king of the apes.

Director Jon Favreau (Chef, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Elf, Made, Cowboys & Aliens), who is not monkeying around, stays true both to the source material and the earlier work of hand-drawn animation, and yet adds elements that make it seem freshly observed as well.

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The director works from Justin Marks’ lively, engaging script and is careful not to overly sanitize the early murder, making it just as disturbing as it ought to be, thereby tipping his cap to Kipling’s 1894 book and borrowing its darkness.

That is, this jungle is beautiful, true, but it’s legitimately dangerous as well.

Which does not, however, mean that this is The Revenant for kids. Not quite.

The Jungle Book is a kidflick in the same way that E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Jurassic Park are kidflicks.

As for the extraordinarily detailed digital landscape, it is amazingly convincing and often stunning. And while treating us to a remarkable series of digital illusions, Favreau makes sure that his casually spectacular special effects serve the characters and the story. To that end, he’s careful not to overdo the anthropomorphic thrust to the point of silliness, acknowledging that he has what is essentially a chase-and-survival flick on his hands.

He also knows that he’s got strong nature-versus-nurture source material, abundant conflict, a terrific voice cast, and an effectively scary villain in his arsenal. And he even finds time – the only misstep in an otherwise carefully measured work of art — for a couple of musical interludes involving popular numbers from the earlier film, “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You,”which are awkwardly embedded but are fun anyway, thereby letting Murray and Walken temporarily steal focus.

Favreau has taken aim at the proverbial “children of all ages” target audience with his light touch, fully engaging youngsters’ — and oldsters’ — sense of wonder and hitting the bull’s-eye both technically and emotionally as he brings something new to a wonderful old story.

So we’ll swing from a vine of 3½ stars out of 4 for the delightful, heartwarming family adventure fantasy, The Jungle Book. To quote from the movie, Trusssst in me: this is an enormously entertaining fantasy that offers a heck of a lot more than the bare necessities.

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