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Family Movie Review: The Jungle Book (PG)

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MPAA Rating: PG        Length: 105 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 8+. This live-action remake of the 1967 Disney animated film ‘The Jungle Book’ includes some stuff that might be scary for younger kids, including pretty vicious fighting between various animals, a few animal deaths, a villain that kills for pleasure instead of need for food, a human parent who dies, and frightening stuff with fire, including a character who is burned. Also a few crude jokes.

Disney pushes forward with its live-action remakes of animated classics with ‘The Jungle Book,’ a visual marvel. But all the CGI in the world can’t make this movie feel as lifelike as it should.

By Roxana Hadadi

It’s strange to talk about how beautiful the Disney live-action remake of “The Jungle Book” is: Here is a movie that asks viewers to marvel at the natural world, at its ferociousness and its wonder, and yet not one second of it was shot on location anywhere. This is a movie entirely created with CGI, with technical developments that are quite gorgeous but, ultimately, feel soulless.

Maybe it’s in the eyes? As expressive as the voice acting is from actors like Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, and Lupita Nyong’o, the animation of their characters, from snakes to wolves to panthers, still can’t get those windows to the soul quite right. There is flatness there instead of depth, blankness instead of emotion. And when those fictional animals are all that sole human actor Neel Sethi has to interact with as Mowgli, there’s a distance that viewers won’t be able to surpass.

But there are moments of profound beauty here: A herd of elephants passing through the jungle, regal and majestic; beehives shaped like discs hanging on the underside of a rock face, dripping honey to the animals below; a clump of juicy-looking figs covered with dew and surrounded by mist. And thankfully, this Disney version of “The Jungle Book” rejects the colonialism and racism present in author Rudyard Kipling’s original works. It’s not perfect, though, and its technical achievements do not a flawless movie make.

“The Jungle Book” is, according to panther narrator Bagheera (Kingsley, of “The Walk”), “the tale of the cub we call Mowgli,” a young boy Bagheera found in the jungle years ago. An orphan, Mowgli was taken by Bagheera to the jungle’s wolf pack, where he grew up with other cubs and knew his only mother figure in the loving but strict Raksha (Nyong’o, of “Star Wars: Episode VII–The Force Awakens”). Bagheera wants him to act more like a wolf than a human boy (he’s prone to using shortcuts and tricks that animals wouldn’t be able to develop), but there’s genuine affection between Mowgli and a number of the jungle’s other species.

It’s Bagheera who realizes the danger Mowgli is in when the tiger Shere Khan (Elba, of “Zootopia”) returns to the jungle and immediately announces his intention to hunt down the “man cub.” “A man cub becomes a man, and man is forbidden!” Shere Khan, once burned by a man, says to the other animals, and they’re all so terrified of him—who hunts for pleasure instead of for food—that they all realize Mowgli must leave for the nearby human village.

This doesn’t go down well with Mowgli, though, and so he does everything in his power to stay. During his adventures he gets separated from Bagheera and runs into the likes of the gigantic snake Kaa (Johansson, of “Hail, Caesar!”), the lazy bear Baloo (Murray, of “Aloha”), and the Gigantopithecus King Louie (Walken, of “Eddie the Eagle”), all of whom want different things from him. Kaa wants to eat him; Baloo wants his tricks to help him gather honey; and King Louie wants the secret to the “red flower,” or fire. Who should Mowgli ally himself with? Because Shere Khan is coming, and he isn’t going to stop.

It cannot be overstated how striking some of these images are, like Baloo and Mowgli floating down a river, singing “Bare Necessities,” or King Louie chasing Mowgli through a crumbling temple. But all of the characters are pretty sparsely developed, especially Mowgli—he’s a smart kid, but also kind of an ungrateful brat to Bagheera, who is essentially his father figure—and although the ending is a nice change from the original animated film, it feels less like a narrative choice and more for the possibility of a sequel. (Which makes sense, given that Disney announced plans for “The Jungle Book 2” before this film was even released.)

Fundamentally, it seems wrong—disingenuous, even—for a film about the natural world to be so artificial. “The Jungle Book” looks and sounds great, but there’s a distance at which this film holds itself from the audience, even with all its enjoyable elements, that is difficult to surpass.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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