Review: ‘The Jungle Book’ swings … and hits a home run

THE JUNGLE BOOKRemakes are an inevitable part of the film industry, and Disney has long had a unique ability to remake its animated film with live-action equivalents: 101 Dalmatians. Cinderella. Alice in Wonderland. (Most they will eventually turn into Broadway musicals.) Latest on the chopping block: The Jungle Book, itself adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s tales of an aboriginal boy named Mowgli, raised by forest creatures a generation before Tarzan swung into his literary domain. The 1967 film was of a piece with its time: A musical that drifted in that netherworld between counterculture and doo-woo, between the Beatles and Frank Sinatra. It grooved like Dean Martin, with a hint of the Beat Generation and hippiedom thrown in. And because Kipling’s own 19th century sensibilities hovered in the realm of racism, and the idea of real–life panthers and pythons seemed unwieldy, it seemed safe from remake.

Until now.

THE JUNGLE BOOKTo call the new Jungle Book live-action, though, may be to stretch the term a bit. Only one human actor appear in all of its 100 minutes, the bright-eyed newcomer Neel Sethi, who plays young Mowgli — reared by wolves, counseled by a panther, threatened by a tiger. The rest of what we see — including most of the scenery — is computer-generated (it was filmed in Los Angeles, not the Punjab). Even so, what you see has become, through modern technology, a marvel. It’s a childhood adventure tale that cinephiles will be amazed by.

Frankly, the beauty and storytelling strengths of the film are something of a surprise. The director is Jon Favreau, who has made several above-average comedy-infused action films (Iron Man 1 and 2) and some below-average ones (Zathura, Cowboys & Aliens). And the opening few minutes of Jungle Book — an over-edited chase scene — feels designed to distract rather than illuminate. But then we get into the emotion of the characters: The relationship between the man-cub Mowgli and his canine family; the avuncular, masculine attentions of Bagheera the panther (voiced by Ben Kingsley); the goofy good-natured devilishness of Baloo the sloth-bear (Bill Murray, in pure Peter Venkman sarcasm mode). If there’s one thing the Disney machine knows, it’s how to anthropomorphize and make you care about fauna. (The voice acting is exceptional in helping achieve this.)

THE JUNGLE BOOKThat the young actor Sethi is able to carry this emotion on his narrow soldiers is a testament not only to him, but to Favreau’s direction, which modulates the adventure with pathos, light-heartedness, scares and sadness. He sets Mowgli in a gorgeous wonderland — not on another planet, or a fantasy world, but in the past, at a time when the natural world was still so much of a mystery.

The film is appropriate for most-age kids, but what makes The Jungle Book so good is how it taps the kid inside adults. It’s the first truly accomplished cartoon-to-human-being Disney adaptation… even if there aren’t many actual human being around. It owes as much to Raiders of the Lost Ark as to Bambi.

Opens Friday in wide release.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

First person shooter

An old-fashioned Western with modern FX, ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ rides roughshod

CRAGGY CRAIG | Daniel Craig projects the right amount of swagger as a gunslinger fighting ETs in 1873.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

2.5 out of 5 stars
Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Adam Beach, Olivia Wilde.
Rated PG-13. 115 mins.
Now playing in wide release.


Movie adaptations used to be based on literature and theater and even magazine articles. Nowadays, they are based on cartoons, video games, toys (the “Hasbro Presents” credit still gets a laugh during the opening credits of Transformers movies) and comic books. Such movies usually feel so pre-fab: Meta-cultural, with Hollywood navelgazing into a state of catatonia. (The games and comics are often inspired by trashy action movies, perpetuating the Mobius strip assembly line of dreck.)

But while Cowboys & Aliens’ source material is, sadly, a graphic novel about settlers and scalawags in 1873 New Mexico, its real progenitor is the movie Western of yore: Black hats versus white hats. Lasses and scoundrels in saloons. Gunslingers and cattlemen.

And extra-terrestrials. Yeah, it still is a sci-fi film.

The sci-fi, though, doesn’t overwhelm the tale, which has the plainspoken good-and-bad dichotomy of the genre, anchored by a humanity lacking in movies like Transformers. Daniel Craig (looking ripped, god bless him) plays an amnesiac bandit who apparently has successfully fought off the aliens with their own weapon, a metal wrist corsage that shoots laser blasts (but only when it needs to). He’s posse’d up with the local oligarch (played brutally at first by Harrison Ford, later cuddly as a kitten) to hunt down the aliens who are stealin’ our gold and rapin’ our women. (Actually, it’s not clear why they take people — one of many plot holes best ignored if you wanna get through the film.)

Director Jon Favreau added much-needed humor into the Iron Man movies, an element all but absent here, but cinematographer Matthew Libatique more than makes up for it with gorgeous landscapes and moodily underlit tableaux. Craig is well-suited to the craggy, silent loner: He’s brimming with testosteronic swagger … at least until the clusterfuck finale, a convoluted mess that overwhelms everyone involved, including any sense of logic in the storytelling.

Until then, though, it’s a kick-ass summer film with excellent production values — War of the Worlds with six-shooters and arrows.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 29, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens