The Jungle Book (2016)


Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

(2016) Family (Disney) Neel Sethi, Bill Murray (voice), Ben Kingsley (voice), Idris Elba (voice), Lupita Nyong’o (voice), Scarlett Johansson (voice), Giancarlo Esposito (voice), Christopher Walken (voice), Garry Shandling (voice), Brighton Rose (voice), Emjay Anthony (voice), Jon Favreau (voice), Russell Peters (voice), Sam Raimi (voice), Ritesh Rajan, Sara Arrington (voice). Directed by Jon Favreau

 

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is rightly considered a children’s classic. The Disney animated version, while not near the top of their list, is at least considered one of the better animated films of its era, complete with a passel of Sherman brothers tunes that continue to be quoted by Disney in their theme parks and commercials.

A live action version continues Disney’s string of live action features based on their animated films and in many ways this is the most challenging project yet. Director Favreau, who is best known for the first two Iron Man films, was an inspired choice to direct this, having done family films as well as big special effects extravaganzas as well.

Mowgli (Sethi) is a young human child raised by wolves after the death of his father (Rajan). Alpha male Akela (Esposito) and his noble wife Raksha (Nyong’o) take on the responsibility of raising the boy as a wolf. Try as he might to fit in, Mowgli has just two legs and no claws to speak of. However he is a cheerful boy and an inventive thinker. Panther Bagheera (Kingsley) is also nearby, making sure that Mowgli is raised right.

Also nearby, unfortunately, is Shere Khan (Elba), a disfigured tiger whose burns had been received at the hands of Mowgli’s dad before the big cat sent him on his way to meet his maker. When Shere Khan finds out that Mowgli is about, he blows a gasket. No human will live safely in his forest while he lives, and Shere Khan sets out to eliminate Mowgli from the board.

Akela and Bagheera agree that Mowgli must leave the pack, despite the laws of the pack that seem to indicate that the pack is stronger together rather than splitting up. Bagheera tries to escort Mowgli to the safety of the human village but Shere Khan finds out and Mowgli and Bagheera are separated. Mowgli is found by Baloo ((Murray), a happy-go-lucky bear who finds a stroke of good luck when Mowgli, ever-inventive, figures out a way for Baloo to get the honeycombs that are high on the top of a mountain that Baloo is unable to reach. Even in this idyllic interlude, the jungle isn’t safe; not only is the tiger after Mowgli but so is King Louie (Walken), the clever but crazed leader of the apes who has an eye on the secret of fire which only Mowgli can unravel as well as Kaa (Johansson), a seductive serpent whose only concern is making Mowgli her lunch.

Sethi is the only onscreen actor who gets any significant time; all the other animal characters and indeed the jungle setting itself is all digitally created. It’s an impressive technical achievement, achieving a photorealistic jungle as well as the animals within it. The computer animators achieve actual personalities in the anthropomorphic subjects, with Baloo’s happy-go-lucky bear augmented by Murray’s acerbic wit; Bagheera’s sleek black form is bolstered with his expressions of annoyance and occasional contentment. It is somewhat ironic that only Mowgli himself is poorly drawn as a character.

It’s not that Sethi is a bad actor – far from it. He shows some real athleticism in his role, but the dialogue for him is a little one-note and Sethi doesn’t vary much in his line reading. Like some child actors, he comes off as a little too sure of himself and perhaps Mowgli’s wolf upbringing might explain this, but Mowgli comes off as almost arrogant to the point of Trumpness.

The voice actors all do wonderful work, particularly Murray and Kingsley, but Johansson, Nyong’o and Walken also distinguish themselves. Favreau is inventive in the way he uses tracking shots and flashbacks, and the movie is never visually boring.

The animated edition is where most of the cues for this movie arise, but there are also other elements from other movies, some surprising. There are nods to Apocalypse Now, for example, when King Louie reveals himself. The appearance of three songs from the original movie is all welcome and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Christopher Walken warbling “Wanna Be Like You.”

This is some of the best family entertainment you’re going to find in a year that’s shaping up to offer some truly interesting family films that this critic is eager to check out. That’s good news as there has been a bit of a dry spell when it’s come to high quality family entertainment. This one is going to make it into the video library for a lot of kids who will be demanding it from parents who won’t mind giving in. Definitely one of the best family films in years.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing animal effects look completely real. A classic honored with a terrific rendition. Nice little shout-outs to the animated version.
REASONS TO STAY: While Sethi is less annoying then he might have been, he was occasionally a bit overly smug for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence here as well as a child in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Disney version of The Jungle Book in which Bagheera and Shere Khan fight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tarzan
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Honeyglue

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The Croods


Eep reaches for her dreams.

Eep reaches for her dreams.

(2013) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman, Chris Sanders, Randy Thom. Directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco

At the dawn of time, everything was new. Even change was new. Survival was the only motivator for anything and those who were able to change, survived.

Eep (Stone) is a young cave girl whose father Grug (Cage) has lived life by a strict rule; fear everything. Grug has depended on brute strength and caution to keep his family alive, including his wife Ugga (Keener), son Thunk (Duke), feral baby Sandy (Thom) and his mother-in-law Gran (Leachman), the latter of which he wouldn’t mind seeing violate a few of his rules. Eep chafes at the restrictions placed upon her, longing to see the world outside the cave but there are too many dangers in the prehistoric world for her to do that on her own.

Then one night she sees a light outside the cave. What was the sun doing out at this hour? But it wasn’t daylight. She must investigate! She follows the light and runs into Guy (Reynolds), a step up on the evolutionary ladder. He has invented fire and is running around the countryside with it. After some time, she gets that he has a lot of interesting ideas and might be a valuable addition to the family (most of their neighbors have fallen to pestilence and predators). He also has a cute little mammal named Belt (Sanders) who provides quite a few functions, not the least of which is providing appropriately dramatic musical accompaniment.

However, Guy has a warning; the world is changing and tearing itself apart. They’ll need to get to high ground in order to survive. Grug pooh-poohs the idea; they can ride anything out in the safety and security of their cave. However, when the cave is destroyed, Grug has to rethink his position (and believe me, that’s quite an accomplishment for Grug). The family will have to make its way through an increasingly hostile landscape facing all sorts of bizarre and fearsome threats before they reach safety.

I have to admit, my expectations weren’t very high for this one. It seems that of late there’s been a surfeit of mediocre animated features (some very successful I might add) that really seem to be little more than an attempt to create characters that can be marketed as toys, happy meals, TV shows and whatever money-generating idea the studios can think of. And I don’t doubt that there is some of that involved here too

But still this one has plenty of heart. Yes, the message seems to be “try bold new things” which is something most kids have trouble doing. However, the filmmakers borrow liberally from such things as the old Looney Toons Roadrunner cartoons. Some critics have complained about it; either because it’s ripping off a classic or because the classic is so violent and outrageous to begin with. However, as one who grew up on them, I can say that you couldn’t pick a better source to rip off from. And homage is the sincerest form of flattery is it not?

The voice cast is pretty small for one of these things which works out nicely. Cage, normally an actor who can lose it in an instant, plays the dad with comparative restraint. He actually has some very nice scenes with the spunky Stone as their fractured parental bond is repaired in the crisis. Da Queen shed more than a few tears and I have to admit to being misty eyed myself. That was completely unexpected.

It was also nice to hear Leachman, who last year attended the Florida Film Festival and then tended bar at the Eden into the wee hours of the morning, doing her thing. She announces with that tone that tells you she knows how irritated Grug is with the fact that she’s still alive that she is indeed, still alive. It’s Cage however who gets the best line of the film: “Release the baby!!” You had to be there I guess.

Funny and endearing, this is the kind of animated feature that the kids will love and their parents won’t mind. In fact their parents might end up liking it more than the kids, which doesn’t happen often. The Croods relies on slapstick humor, a bit of pathos and a can-do attitude to be successful, tuning out the cheap potty humor which seems to be creeping into kid flicks more and more these days (and how did I start sounding like my Dad?) which is appreciated. The first major animated feature of the year (not counting Escape From Planet Earth which I haven’t seen yet but admittedly it comes fro a mid-major) may turn out to be the most surprising – and one of the best. Who’da Thunk?

REASONS TO GO: Surprisingly moving and well-animated. Fun for the whole family. Road Runner-esque.

REASONS TO STAY: Nothing particularly new or daring.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the scenes in the film depict some peril that might be a bit too scary for the really young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After a long run with Paramount, this is the first DreamWorks Animation film to be distributed by 20th Century Fox.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100; the reviews were pretty mediocre trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Incredibles

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Red Planet

Cave of Forgotten Dreams


Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Once you've seen one awe-inspiring cave drawing, you've seen 'em all.

(2010) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste, Carole Fritz, Gilles Tosello, Michel Philippe, Julien Monney, Nicholas Conard, Wulf Hein, Maria Malina, Maurice Maurin. Directed by Werner Herzog

We are merely part of an endless unbroken line of vessels, stretching back tens of thousands of years to our earliest human ancestors. The line between us and them is not nearly so tenuous as you might think.

In 1994, rock climbers in the South of France discovered Chauvet Cave, a cave of unusual beauty and grandeur. That, however, is not why the great filmmaker Werner Herzog bothered to make a documentary. The cave is also home to the earliest known examples of cave art, dating back some 35,000 years.

The paintings are incredibly fragile and access to the caves is thus justifiably limited to only a few weeks a year, and only to scientists. Herzog had to receive special permission to film in the cave, and even then with a bare bones crew with lights that emit no heat and are battery operated as all his equipment had to be. They could only walk on metal planks two feet wide, and couldn’t touch the walls. They had to wear special suits that would prevent contamination of the fragile cavern eco-system and enter through a steel door that is locked electronically.

But the beauty behind that door! Scenes of horses, moving en masse; wooly rhinoceroses battling, the seductive form of a woman with a bison’s head, all drawn on curving walls and projections, giving the illusion of three dimensionality, which is why this documentary was filmed in 3D so that viewers could get the proper effect. It still gives me goosebumps that these are depictions of animals that have not walked the earth for tens of thousands of years but were witnessed by human eyes.

The drawings themselves are surprisingly sophisticated given the circumstance. The animals are shown to be in motion; you can almost hear the horses whinny. The cave sparkles with crystals from the calcification process of limestone stalagtites and stalagmites, adding an otherworldly air to a cave that is already locked in time. It was almost perfectly sealed off from the ravages of the elements when the cliff face collapsed and sealed it shut. That served to preserve everything inside it, allowing us to see these amazing drawings 35,000 years later.

There are a lot of interviews here with scientists, some of whom are a bit quirky (like the German musicologist who plays the Star Spangled Banner on an ivory flute similar to ones found in nearby caves, or the programmer who used to be a circus acrobat). All of them are clearly affected on a very deep level by the cave and the artwork within.

The interesting thing is that the cave wasn’t really a habitation. Cave bears lived in the cave (their scratches, footprints and bones are all over) and humans used it for what appears to be ceremonial purposes. We can only speculate at this point but some of the positioning of stones and skulls in the cave lead some scientists to theorize that religious ceremonies took place there.

This isn’t a scientific lecture however, although obviously scientists play an important role in the cinematic experience (occasionally too much – the movie might have been better served letting the images speak for themselves more often). Herzog isn’t interested so much in explaining things, but letting the audience come to their own conclusions. He is not asking questions like “what did they use to get those colors” or “what manner of worship was conducted there.” He instead asks questions like “When did humans first get their soul?” and “What makes us human?” which in my opinion are far more worthy and interesting questions to ask.

This is the kind of movie that is going to stay with you for a very long time. It will percolate in your head, change color and shape and lead you to examine greater questions about our place in history. Will it change your life? I can’t say that it will and I won’t say that it won’t, but it will almost certainly change your perception of life. A movie that brings out a genuine feeling of awe in the audience is rare enough and should be experienced without delay if it comes to a theater near you.

REASONS TO GO: You can’t help but be awed by the power of the cave drawings, and the scientists interviewed convey that awe.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many talking heads.

FAMILY VALUES: Might be a little too tedious for those with short attention spans but otherwise great for families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is co-produced by the History Channel’s motion picture arm, History Films. This is their first feature release.

HOME OR THEATER: This must be seen in a theater for maximum viewing impact.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Paranormal Activity

Sanctum


Sanctum

Richard Roxburgh is taking his toys and going home.

(2011) Adventure (Universal) Richard Roxburgh, Rhys Wakefield, Ioan Gruffudd, Alice Parkinson, Dan Wylie, Christopher Baker, Nicole Downs, Allison Cratchley, Cramer Cain, Andrew Hansen, John Garvin. Directed by Alister Grierson

The exploration of caves is one of the last great adventures left to us on Earth. Most of the planet has been completely mapped and has been seen by human eyes. It is only when we go belowground that the exploration really begins…as well as the danger. 

Josh (Wakefield) is the son of noted cave explorer Frank (Roxburgh) who doesn’t share his father’s enthusiasms. He is constantly in his father’s doghouse, forced to spend summers with him that he’d rather spend doing anything else but. Frank, for his part, pushes Josh mercilessly, expecting far more than Josh is willing to give.

Frank is exploring a cave in Papua New Guinea’s Esa Ala cave system, one of the largest in the world. Josh has gone to pick up Carl (Gruffudd), a nascent caver himself who is funding the expedition. Carl has brought along his girlfriend Victoria (Parkinson) who has almost no caving experience. Josh escorts them to the massive cave opening and leads them down, although Type A personality Carl prefers jump off the edge and ride his parachute down.

In the meantime Josh’s forgetfulness about bringing down the spare air tanks has led to a terrible mishap in the caves. It becomes a heated argument between Josh and Frank and Josh prepares to leave. However a sudden storm turns into a cyclone, causing the cave to flood, leaving their only way out cut off. With the water level rising, Frank, Josh, Carl, Victoria as well as members of Frank’s support team Luku (Cain) and Crazy George (Wylie) must figure a way out of the caves before they all drown.

This was shot in 3D and to be honest, I’m not sure it really needed it. Much of the movie has little or no foreground to speak of, causing the director to have to use creative ways of framing the action in order to generate the 3D imagery. As a result, the movie has a curious lack of depth considering that it’s filmed in 3D (utilizing the same camera technology that executive producer James Cameron used for Avatar). It is also made darker because of the polarized glasses needed to view the 3D and quite frankly, the movie is dark enough to begin with. Some movies lend themselves to the 3D visual experience and some don’t and to my mind, this was one of the latter sort.

The actors are mainly not well known in these parts, although Gruffudd did get some notoriety as Reed Richards in the Fantastic Four movies. Most of the rest of the cast is Australian (much of the movie was filmed there) and for the most part do credible jobs. Roxburgh is the main eventer here, gruff and hard as nails, particularly on his son. The dynamic between Josh and Frank is at the emotional center of the movie, and if it doesn’t work, neither does the movie.

Fortunately for the filmmakers, that dynamic does work and is one of the things about the movie you come away with. That, the breathtaking visuals of the caves which are partially location shots, some sets and some CGI. The scenes are appropriately claustrophobic where they need to be, and grand vistas where they need to be. This makes for an excellent setting for the adventure.

The critics have been pretty rough on the movie and I can see some of their points although I do think they were being a little bit harsh overall. The general consensus is that this is Ten Little Indians in a cave and to my view that’s lazy writing – most survival movies, regardless of location, have that element to them as characters get picked off one by one by the elements or whatever disaster they’re dealing with. The killing off of characters gives you a sense of the danger that they’re in; without it, that sense of impending danger isn’t there and you don’t feel any sense of fear for your characters and your emotional investment in the movie then goes spiraling down the drain.

In the end, this is a fairly pedestrian adventure movie with some nice visuals that would have been nicer if they hadn’t been further darkened by 3D. Also, the language is a bit on the foul side to the point that the movie got an “R” rating here in the states, a rating that it didn’t really warrant considering there was little violence, not much gore and no sex. However, if you’re looking for a bit of fun and an escape from the ordinary, you could do much, much worse.

REASONS TO GO: Some stunning cave photography. Some of the perils are quite well done.

REASONS TO STAY: Script a little hackneyed. Language should have been cleaned up.  

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of coarse language, a bit of violence and several images that might be disturbing to the sensitive.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film bills itself as being based on actual events; co-writer Andrew Wright had a similar situation in which a cave he and 14 others were exploring had the entrance collapse, forcing them to find another way out.

HOME OR THEATER: Although some of the film is claustrophobic by its very nature, the magnificent caverns should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Company Men