The Jungle Book (2016)

JungleDirector: Jon Favreau

Screenwriter: Justin Marks

Cast: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Scarlet Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, and Garry Shandling

I mentioned in my review of 2015’s Cinderella that, “remakes, sequels, and formula retreads have littered Disney’s productions over the past few decades, but as they say, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”  That statement remains remarkably true with this year’s The Jungle Book.

Director Jon Favreau hops the fence from Disney’s Marvel studio productions to Disney’s, Disney studio productions; I imagine he’s eyeing one of those Star Wars spinoffs so he can pull off the Disney hat trick.   As usual, Favreau brings his time-tested bag of tricks along with him to make The Jungle Book far better than it might have been in someone else’s hands.  The Jungle Book retells the classic Rudyard Kipling story that also inspired the 1967 Disney animated classic as well as a Disney live-action film in 1994.  After the death of his father at the jaws of the fierce tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), orphaned child Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is taken in by a pack of wolves and raised as one of their own.  As Mowgli ages, his human instincts and ingenuity begin to manifest, causing the fearsome Khan to threaten the pack with his terror if the “man-cub” is not surrendered.  For his own good, Mowgli’s wolf-mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) entrusts panther, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to escort Mowgli through the dense jungle and deliver him to the man-village for his own safety.

Yes, this is a faithful retelling of a story that has been told many times over.  So why do it and why is it worth seeing?  As was the case with 2015’s Cinderella, when one decides to tell a familiar story like this, it is important to have a purpose. Fortunately, that is precisely why Favreau’s version is successful. From the very start, we are immersed in the jungle landscape with standard-setting visual effects that leave all Jungle Book predecessors in the dust.  Furthermore, that “Favreau bag of tricks” results in style, fun, and pointed humor that makes the film feel fresh and exciting.  Case in point, opening the film with a neurotic hedgehog frantically claiming any object he finds as “mine,” voiced by Garry Shandling in what is likely his final role (the film is also dedicated to Shandling in the end credits).  Additionally, the landscapes are breathtaking and the narrative is full of life despite its having only one human character!  Like his work on Elf, Favreau brings a fantasy world to life by relating it so well to our familiar world.  Mowgli’s metaphorical journey resonates with audiences of all ages because like all good films based on a classic piece of literature, there are layers of appreciation for the central themes including relationships, integrity, and persistence.  Of course, unlike Zootopia from earlier this year, these themes are more or less just “there” and not executed expertly enough to support the kind of conversation and discussion the story has in book form.

Then there are the performances.  I’ve purposefully left this discussion of specific characters for last, as I could never have anticipated how much I was going to enjoy them.  First of all, our sole human actor, Neel Sethi is outstanding as Mowgli.  This kid is athletic, heartwarming, and talented.  Not many kids can carry a $175 million budget film all on their own, let alone on their first try!  But let’s get down to it.  Those who know me, know that I have a few cinematic heroes that I don’t shut up about: Woody Allen, Christopher Walken, and Bill Murray.  I recently wrote a little retrospective on Walken called “Talkin’ Walken: A Top 10 List,” and of course my favorite movie of all time continues to be 1993’s Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, who I have often written about and whose name is

IMG_5473
“Bill Murray” on the red carpet during the 2016 Academy Awards.

consequently also the name of my dog (see image on right).  Now both actors have done some stinkers and several of those stinkers involve either voice acting and/or animals, so imagine my trepidation when I heard that these two actors would be voicing roles of animals in a Disney live-action Jungle Book.  Still, like Mowgli I persevered keeping an open mind and hoping for the best.  The first of these two actors to appear is Murray as Baloo the bear.  Let me tell you, as a fan but also a critic, Murray is superb in this role.  Anyone who supported that conversation about how Scarlet Johansson (who also voices a role in this film) deserved an Oscar nomination for voicing an operating system in Her, should be right back at it supporting Bill Murray for this performance.  Yes, that sounds stupid, and that’s why that whole conversation was stupid in 2013, but he’s just as good.  Thankfully, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks had the wherewithal to have Murray sing “Bare Necessities” and forgo that whole “live-action remakes don’t include the songs” rule.  And speaking of singing, the classically trained singer, dancer, and actor Christopher Walken gets a crack at the film’s other most memorable number as King Louie with “I wan’na Be Like You.”  There is no appropriate maximum number of times you can hear Christopher Walken say “Shooby-Doo” or “Gigantopithecus.”

So it seems the Jungle Book renaissance is just getting underway.  A sequel to this film to be helmed once again by Favreau has already been green lit. Also, this summer a Jungle Book clone in the form of Tarzan (but not the Disney story) will also grace the big screen.  And even more confusingly, motion-capture magician Andy Serkis is directing and starring in his own darker, non-Disney version of The Jungle Book due out in 2018.  So don’t fill up on jungles and/or books just yet, but this one is an excellent first course.  B+

shoobyThe Jungle Book is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes.  If you stay a few minutes into the end credits, you will be treated to a reprise of Walken’s “I Wan’na Be Like You,” which I of course completely recommend.

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Talkin’ Walken: A Top 10 List

Walken2Christopher Walken is one of the most interesting actors working today.  His career, like his reputation, is strange and unusual.  The 1978 Best Supporting Actor winner is also in the 2003 Worst Picture Winner (according to me) Kangaroo Jack.  The thing is, Walken’s scene in that “film” is easily the best part, and that same thing can be said for every film in which he appears.  Regardless of the film’s success, having Walken in your movie makes it better every time.  Take Poolhall Junkies for example.  I imagine you have not seen Poolhall Junkies, but watch this scene where Christopher Walken approaches Johnny (Mars Callahan)in a men’s room.  Tell me that you don’t want to see more of this movie!  In fact, tell me that you don’t want to memorize that speech and recite it to a random stranger in a men’s room some day!  The thing is, this is the best part of Poolhall Junkies, but it makes me like the entire movie so much more knowing that this scene exists!  Those who know me, know I have been a die-hard Christopher Walken fan my entire life.  His dead-eye stare as Diane Keaton’s brother Dwayne in Annie Hall explaining his “dark secret” to Woody Allen was probably the scene that started my fandom and I’ve been a loyal Walken-lover ever since.  Therefore, as the actor begins his 73rd year of life on this planet and releases his 128throle in television and film as the voice of King Louie in Disney’s the Jungle Book, I decided to put a little list of the top 10 Walken performances of all time.  While most of the films on this list, bill Walken as the star or costar, a few are of the Poolhall Junkies variety where his appearance is brief but brilliant.

  1. 10Annie HallAs I mentioned in my introduction, Walken’s role in Annie Hall is probably the one that started my interest in the actor. Woody Allen is one of my cinematic heroes and it’s fitting to have one hero sort of discover another one. I actually have a copy of the original script for this scene.  It was given to me by a relative who worked on the film and has official hand written notes in the margin.  Obviously, the list of reasons Annie Hall is a successful film is long, and Walken’s scene is probably on the bottom of that list.  Still, this is a great example of Walken’s ability to put a big stamp on a movie with minimal screen time.

 

  1. 9A View to a Kill – In the 80s, Walken got somewhat typecast as a villainous and scary character. One of the best things you can do as an actor when this happens is score a role as a Bond villain, and that’s exactly what happened in 1985 when Walken was cast as mad industrialist Max Zorin in the 14th film in the franchise, A View to a Kill. Walken was actually the first Oscar winner to play a Bond villain, and basically paved the way for the latest Bond villain portrayal by an Oscar winner – typecast, villainous and scary guy, Cristoph Waltz from 2015’s Spectre.  Walken chews the scenery with the best of them as Zorin.  Again the hair and the stare are key elements of a good Walken role.  Watch him “negotiate” aboard his Skyship and you’ll see what I mean.
  1. 8Dead Zone – Speaking of creepy characters from the 80s, Walken’s portrayal of Johnny Smith in the cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone fits that description too! Walken is perfect for the role as the ominous clairvoyant who through just a momentary touch receives a vision of how others will perish. This film was also the impetus for one of his first classic Saturday Night Live bits, “Ed Glosser, Trivial Psychic.”

 

 

  1. 7Seven Psychopaths Seven Psychopaths is a dark comedy from Martin McDonagh who like Tarantino or Hitchcock likes to explore similar types of characters viewed through a similar societal lens in order to analyze humanity. Walken’s character Hans is one of the more relaxed psychopaths of this film about an alcoholic screenwriter who is trying to write a long overdue screenplay. Walken basically does a Walken impression here, which is what people have come to want from him in this later phase of his career.  The good news is that like the title suggests, no character is quite what he seems on the surface and Walken is no exception.

    66. King of New York –
    Perhaps Walken’s darkest and most sinister character to date comes in the form of Frank White in Abel Ferrara’s King of New York. You’ll notice a bevy of familiar faces in this 1990 crime thriller including Laurence “Larry” Fishburne, David Caruso, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, and Steve Buscemi. This is a brutal gangster movie that delivers no warm, fuzzy feelings whatsoever.  Walken is menacing as the crime-lord Cross who after doing his stint in prison is determined to rebuild his criminal empire at all costs but still save time to cut a rug.
  1. 5Suicide KingsWithout King of New York, there would probably be no Suicide Kings, so that movie deserves an extra plug before moving on to number 4. Here, Walken plays a top mafia figure, Carlo Bartolucci who could easily be an older, wiser, (and yes gentler) Frank Cross. Walken spends most of the film duct taped to an office chair by a group of fledgling kidnappers who are looking for a quick ransom payday.  Like King of New York, you’ll recognize nearly all of this film’s young stars including Sean Patrick Flanery, Denis Leary, Jay Mohr, Johnny Galecki, and Jeremy Sisto.  Walken shines as the mobster who slowly realizes his kidnappers have gotten themselves into something far deeper than they had ever planned.
  1. 4Pulp Fiction – I do wish my list had some surprises in store for the top picks, but Walken’s finest performances are far from unexpected. Walken has only one scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but it’s top notch. In a segment titled, “The Gold Watch,” Walken plays Vietnam War veteran Captain Koons, who delivers a phenomenal monologue to a young Butch (later played by Bruce Willis).  The watch in question is critical to Butch’s story and thanks to Walken’s performance, we understand its significance, importance, and value.  If this scene didn’t work, the movie would flounder in the final act.  Instead, Pulp Fiction became a masterpiece.
  1. 3Catch Me if You Can – Now if you look at the previous seven selections on this list, it is unlikely that you would look at Christopher Walken for the role of a sentimental father. Well thank goodness you’re not Steven Spielberg because his casting of Walken as Frank Abagnale, Sr. was a touch of brilliance. Walken gives one of his most celebrated performances here as a proud father whose blurred line of ethics compromises his family but also inspires his son to become a con artist.

 

 

  1. 2Deer Hunter – I am not trying to be cliché by selecting Walken’s Oscar winning role as a Vietnam prisoner of war in 1978’s The Deer Hunter so high on the list. This is a remarkable film with perhaps one of the most electric and horrifying climaxes in all of cinema. Walken’s performance is outstanding and certainly award worthy.  And what really grounds this performance is not the chaos towards the end, but the delicate humanity that Walken gives to Nick early in the film.  Walken’s performance anchors this film like no other in his filmography.

 

  1. 1True Romance – So I’m sure you read that last line for my Deer Hunter description and thought, “Then why is it not number 1?” The simple fact is that in 1993, Christopher Walken gave a perfect performance hidden in a little film called True Romance. His performance in this film encouraged screenwriter Quentin Tarantino to cast him as Captain Koons in Pulp Fiction and made him a favorite of director Tony Scott leading him to cast Walken in two more films.  When viewed out of context, this scene from True Romance between Walken and Dennis Hopper lacks the punch that it has when viewed within the film, but it is still masterful.

These 10 selections are but a drop in the bucket of the greatness that is Christopher Walken.  To make this list I had to weed out spectacular roles like his wildly over the top performance in Batman Returns, his hysterical turn as Secretary Cleary in Wedding Crashers (his approach to the “Tummysticks” scene is outstanding), his artful song and dance number in Pennies from Heaven, and his voiceover work in Antz ( teamed up once again with Woody Allen).  The point is, if Christopher Walken is in the cast, you really can’t go wrong.  Here’s to 128 more interesting and odd performances to come!