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The Jungle Book (2016) Movie Review

The Jungle Book: Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack cover art
The Jungle Book is now available on home video. Read our review of the Collector's Edition Blu-ray 3D combo.

The Jungle Book (2016) movie poster The Jungle Book

Theatrical Release: April 15, 2016 / Running Time: 106 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Jon Favreau / Writers: Justin Marks (screenplay); Rudyard Kipling (books)

Cast: Neel Sethi (Mowgli) / Voice Cast: Bill Murray (Baloo), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera), Idris Elba (Shere Khan), Lupita Nyong'o (Raksha), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa), Giancarlo Esposito (Akela), Christopher Walken (King Louie), Garry Shandling (Ikki), Brighton Rose (Gray), Jon Favreau (Pygmy Hog), Sam Raimi (Giant Squirrel), Russell Peters (Rocky the Rhino)

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With acquisitions Marvel and Lucasfilm supplying box office behemoths and both Disney and Pixar's animation divisions consistently finding success, the need for live-action movies made by Disney seems to have diminished and in turn, the output has slowed. The class, which grew by as many as eight films a year in the mid-1990s, continues these days with around three new releases per year. One of those is usually a true sports drama, which has been a studio staple for some time. A newer staple is the live-action remake of an animated classic.
You can trace this tradition back to the '90s, when the Glenn Close-headlined 101 Dalmatians was a huge hit. The global returns of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Maleficent, the studio's 2014 reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, seem to have renewed Disney's commitment to this kind of remake, a less objectionable cash-in on established brands than the company's direct-to-video animated sequels of the '90s and 'Noughties.

It's a little bit of a stretch to call 2016's The Jungle Book live-action because apart from the young human protagonist, the cast is comprised entirely of CG-animated animals. Many of the settings, too, are achieved by visual effects, having no doubt been primarily shot on a Los Angeles soundstage. The 1967 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's stories was the last animated feature Walt Disney lived to see through near-completion and it remains one of his more highly regarded works. Disney has gone back to the well plenty of times before, from utilizing the characters in the early '90s Disney Afternoon cartoon "TaleSpin" to making 1994's forgettable live-action film starring Jason Scott Lee as an adult Mowgli to giving 2003's direct animated sequel a theatrical release.

This Jungle Book shouldn't be confused for any of those. It arrives with a substantial $175 million budget and the heightened box office expectations that come with it. At the helm is Jon Favreau, who proved his ability to direct big-budget bonanzas on the first two Iron Man movies.

Bagheera the panther thinks it might be best for Mowgli (Neel Sethi) to return to man village in 2016's "The Jungle Book."

Indian-American newcomer Neel Sethi plays Mowgli, a boy who was raised by wolves and is living in the jungles of India. His guardian is the black panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), a cautious cat who thinks this "man-cub" ought to be returned to the man village where he was found as an orphaned infant. Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba), the fierce, scarred, mankind-hating tiger, wants to take care of Mowgli himself, if you know what I mean.

The resourceful Mowgli winds up out in the wild on his own, a setting he's well-equipped for. Still, he runs into the giant python Kaa (Scarlet Johansson), who hypnotizes him with backstory. Then there's Baloo (Bill Murray, making his overdue first Disney-branded film), the lovable brown bear who saves his life and immediately has some return favors in mind (braving bees to fetch honey from atop treacherous cliffs). The next stop on this episodic journey is the realm of monkeys, whose temple ruins are ruled by King Louie (Christopher Walken), who in keeping with the film's scale is a massive orangutan.

Scarlett Johansson voices Kaa the snake, a character who until now has been male.

The 1967 film could be described as action-adventure, but it was also a musical comedy very much in the Disney tradition. This new filming has a few comedic bits, mostly from Murray as Baloo, but is certainly primarily an action-adventure film. Visual effects abound and, though his direction is not easily identifiable or worth celebrating, Favreau has enough sense not to bog down the film with action sequences.

The two best songs from the animated feature -- Baloo's Oscar-nominated "The Bare Necessities" and King Louie's "I Wan'na Be Like You" -- are gladly retained here. But the swingin' '60s atmosphere that those tunes embody in the cartoon is absent. Favreau's film is rather serious and a bit brooding, about what you expect from a 2016 tentpole. At least it's never dull or as unremarkable as last year's Cinderella.

King Louie, a comic villain in the animated film, is turned into a serious and foreboding threat here. Kaa, in his her brief appearance, is not just sly but a genuine predator. The same elephants whose militaristic marches were played for laughs before are treated with reverence, their passing prompting genuflection for the creators of this jungle. This Jungle Book is not nearly as much fun as Walt's one, but it remains watchable and interesting, even as it piles on the tragedy and completely rewrites the ending. It's a bit of a mystery how screenwriter Justin Marks, whose two previous feature scripts were for a TV movie called Rewind and Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, got the job and didn't even have to share credit with anyone else. But his screenplay is adequate, as is most of this film. The 3D visuals seemed blurrier than most and lacked the presumably intended effect of giving the jungle setting depth. Still, there isn't the retooling and pandering that made Maleficent and 2015's Cinderella underwhelm.

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Related Reviews:
The Jungle Book (2016) (Collector's Edition Blu-ray + Blu-ray 3D + DVD + Digital HD)
The Jungle Book (1967) The Jungle Book 2 Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1994) TaleSpin: Volume 1
Now in Theaters: Zootopia Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Midnight Special
Directed by Jon Favreau: Iron Man Elf
Ben Kingsley: Hugo The Walk | Bill Murray: Fantastic Mr. Fox | Lupita Nyong'o: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Maleficent Cinderella (2015) Alice in Wonderland (2010) 101 Dalmatians (1996) Tarzan

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Reviewed April 15, 2016.

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