Review – No Bear Necessity (“Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle”)

“Daddy, can I write a script too, even though I’ve never done one before?” I’m guessing that’s the way the conversation went when Callie, the daughter of Steve Kloves (the writer of all the Harry Potter movies), got the green light to pen this odd twist on the Rudyard Kipling classic tale. Nepotism has its rewards, apparently.

First off, forget all the cutsie hijinks of the Disney animated feature film or the subsequent reboot of that same movie back in 2016; this story is all about Mowgli and his life in and out the jungle. With all the animals done in startling CGI, we start off pretty much the same: truly evil Shere Khan the Bengal tiger (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) killing a bunch of people, but leaving a baby behind. Brought to a wolf pack by kindly black panther Bagheera (Christian Bale), the man-cub is raised by a family of wolves whose leader, Akela (Peter Mullen), has promised the human baby protection from the blood-thirsty tiger.

From there, the story skews into new territory as a young 10-year-old Mowgli (a remarkable Rohand Chand) is fitting in with his wolf ‘brothers’. He also learns from Bagheera and the wolf cub’s very gruff drill sergeant, an uncompromising bear named Baloo (director Andy Serkis with a heavy Cockney accent). While Shere Khan bides his time for an opportunity to strike, Mowgli’s only concern is whether or not he can make the cut in joining his family’s pack. And that means training every day with Baloo, avoiding some pesky monkeys, and looking out for Shere’s Khan’s crummy little toady, Tabaqui (Tom Hollander), the fly-infested giggling Hyena.

But after a brief scuffle with a hoard of monkeys, a visit with the jungle’s ancient giant python, Kaa (Cate Blanchett), and Shere Khan’s attack on Akela, Mowgli is banished to the man-village below. Given a bath, new clothes, new friends, and a shiny new knife, Mowgli quickly adopts to this new life and his new pal, an English poacher (Matthew Rhys). But life just can’t be all curry and rice, can it? Nope! Pretty soon, his old wolf pack needs him back to take out Shere Khan for good.

No singing, no Monkey King, no goofy antics, just a down-and-dirty story about a kid living in an unforgiving jungle that talks to animals and eats bugs. Yum. You can tell this is Callie Kloves first screenplay as it doesn’t do anything special but tell a pretty dull tale with some side-stories that make no sense at all. The dialogue is boring and expected, while the characters follow arcs you can see coming a mile away. In short, this is one very bland, useless movie as far as the plot is concerned. But the direction by Andy Serkis and all that amazing mo-cap CGI stuff? Now THAT is the movie!

Absolutely drop-dead gorgeous CGI rendering that takes your breath away in mo-cap, especially with Shere Khan and Baloo. And Serkis doesn’t rest on his laurels as a mo-cap master when it comes to directing, either. His directing is immersive and wildly imaginative; just look at the underwater scene with Mowgli and Shere Khan. It’s brilliant! And speaking of brilliant, as practically the only real flesh and blood creature on screen, young Chand is someone to watch. Expressive, solid, and down-to-Earth, look for this kid to go places.

**This movie is available in limited theatrical release and streaming exclusively on Netflix.   

The Jungle Book (2016)

This is Disney’s second live-action remake of their own movie, their last being in 1994 with Jason Scott Lee playing an adult Mowgli. Not to be outdone, Warner Bros. has also announced (for some bone-head reason) to also do a live-action/CGI remake of The Jungle Book as well (in 2018) with Harry Potter scribe Steve Kloves producing it and mo-cap master Andy Serkis directing and voicing Baloo the bear.
If you’ve seen (and who hasn’t) Disney’s wonderful 1967 animated version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, you already know the story of an orphaned Indian child Mowgli, his being raised by a pack of wolves in the jungle, and living (not to mention conversing) with other animals like black panthers, monkeys, pythons, elephants, and… oh, yes… a big ol’ friendly bear named Baloo. 
In this rebooted remade version, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) runs afoul of that nasty man-eating Bengal tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba) who hates man, their “red flower” (fire), and especially Mowgli. Issuing an ultimatum to wolf pack leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and his mate, Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), it’s either “give me the man-cub or else!” Black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), Mowgli’s mentor and teacher, decides it’s safer to return Mowgli to the man-village. But his plans go sideways when Shere Khan attacks Bagheera and Mowgli, leaving the kid to escape on the back of a rampaging water buffalo. 
Safe for the moment, the boy is almost crushed by a ginormous python named Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) while we get some much needed exposition into Mowgli’s backstory. Fortunately, the kid’s rescued by a great big lovable Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), who cons the gullible Mowgli into getting him a rich supply of honey and teaching him how to sing the familiar The Bare Necessities. Mowgli, a bit of a MacGyver with leaves, rocks, vines, and what-not, gladly accepts. Naturally the two bond and Baloo wants Mowgli to stick around.
Meanwhile, Shere Khan isn’t the most patience 500lb lethal pussycat, so he kills Akela to force Mowgli’s return home. Bagheera, still bent on getting the boy home to the man-village, gets Baloo to see reason and send the kid packing, but another problem pops up. A really BIG one in the form of a King-Kong sized orangutan named King Louie, who refers to himself as a Gigantopithecus (Google it) and voiced by Christopher Walken. This ape wants Mowgli to give him the secret of the ‘red flower’ or else his thousands of monkey minions will be very displeased. 
Another escape ensues thanks to Baloo and Bagheera, but the truth spills out about Akela and Mowgli vows revenge against Shere Khan. Not a good idea for a 11-year-old to go up against a vicious carnivore armed only with a torch he stole from the village. The ending pits the red-diaper wearing tyke against the half-blind scarred ravenous kitty cat in a mano-a-paw showdown. 
With a playful script by Justin Marks, the movie does take liberties with both Rudyard Kipling’s book and its 1967 animated counterpart, but all for the better. The new story here is almost the same as the previous 1967 film, but with some much better variations, but don’t expect a real ending–Disney already announced there’s going to be a sequel. And all the photo-realistic CGI animals? Absolutely jaw-dropping. At times I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t. 
The movie’s success hinged on two things: the kid playing Mowgli and direction. Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, makes his screen debut here and is fantastic, teetering on the brink of being over-the-top Disney TV cutsie. He almost strays there, but director Jon Favreau keeps him in check. Sethi simply makes the movie watchable. Favreau has alot of fun here, especially with Bill Murray’s Baloo and Mowgli, which is easily the film’s best moments; it’s classic Murray and his ad-libbing with other animals that is hilarious. But don’t discount the gravitas of the deadly Shere Khan, who is about as evil and ruthless as a killer kitty can get.

Side note: Look for several The Lion King references: Shere Khan, with his deep British accent, is SO very Jeremy Iron’s ‘Scar’, the water buffalo stampede is there along with ‘Simba’ returning to face the animal that killed ‘Mufasa’, and there’s even a clever wink ‘n’ nod with a meerkat & a warthog (Timon & Pumbaa) quick shot.  

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