Jungle Book ***
Director Jon Favreau (Elf, Iron Man) has done a marvelous job re-creating that world in his live-action/CGI adaptation.
Mowgli (newcomer Neeli Sethi, who spends the entire movie acting opposite CGI characters) is adopted by the panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) after the boy's father dies. Bagheera takes him to the wolves and helps raise Mowgli, teaching him the rules of the jungle in ways that reflect the human world we live in — stick with the pack, don't play with fire.
But when the evil tiger Shere Khan (a menacing Idris Elba) discovers Mowgli, the tiger vows to kill the little man-cub. So Bagheera sets out to take Mowgli back to the man-village.
Joining Mowgli along the way is the sloth bear, Baloo — played by Bill Murray, whose voice and general persona exude the character's credo: that life should be full of everyday pleasures and little else. He even gets to sing Baloo's theme song, The Bare Necessities, originally sung by Phil Harris.
It's an interesting choice for Favreau to call back to the Disney version. He does it again when Christopher Walken takes over for Louis Prima as the giant ape King Louie to sing I Wan'na Be Like You.
At first, this was jarring, taking me out of the world that Favreau has constructed. But the music adds a necessary levity, especially since Favreau does not shy away from the dark parts of the jungle. Characters fight and die, which, my 10-year-old granddaughter told me, didn't seem to bother her as much as I thought it would.
The reason to rent or stream Favreau's The Jungle Book, instead of just watching the animated one, is how gorgeous the jungle looks. The temple that King Louie calls his kingdom is breathtaking, and it seems as if every hair of Shere Khan's fur moves as he stalks.
It's the living jungle of Kipling's stories that we could once see only in our minds.
Me Before You **
It’s not so much better that it escapes being what it is, a sort-of romance, liberally sprinkled with moments of corniness and emotional dishonesty. But ultimately, when it matters, it’s truthful — about the people depicted, and who they are, and what they face. It should be noted, however, that the movie’s depiction of disability and of the choices available to people with disabilities have become subjects of controversy within the disabled community, and there have even been some protests and campaigns against the film.
Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) is Lou, a working-class girl in small-town England, and the movie makes no bones about the fact that, were young Will (Sam Claflin) not the victim of a terrible accident, he would never have given Lou a second glance. It’s actually rather interesting just how uninteresting Lou is. She is genuinely simple and not too bright, with no ambition or passion, but she has qualities of character — not remarkable qualities, but solid, decent qualities, that engage our attention.
Clarke is entirely charming and winning in the role, except for one small but nagging thing. She has too much facial tension as she speaks, and it produces a commensurate tension in the viewer. You might not particularly notice this on a small screen, but it’s something you can’t miss the more the face is blown up. George Clooney had a similar problem when he first started making movies. He’d wag his head, as he’d done for years on TV, but suddenly entire audiences were getting motion sickness. He made the adjustment and went on to glory. If Clarke can just stop scrunching up her face, she can do the same.
The class aspect is a presence in Me Before You, but not in the heavy-handed (and ultimately sentimental) way that was present in the French film Intouchables, which had a similar story. In this film, Lou just hasn’t done anything. She’s never been anywhere. She has never even seen a movie with subtitles. And so, introducing her to new things — not for the sake of educating her, but simply to show her new pleasures — becomes a source of mild enjoyment for young Will.
Within what seems to be (and mostly is) a sappy, romantic frame, Sam Claflin is able to do some nice things with Will, and the movie ultimately doesn’t let him down. He remains, from beginning to end, an intelligent person, utterly realistic about his situation, and we always feel that he is thinking — that even when he is almost amused and almost happy, he maintains a certain British refusal to be anything other than realistic.
Claflin’s rigor and Clarke’s charm are counterbalanced by cringe moments, as when, after years of unemployment, Lou’s father (Brendan Coyle) gets a job as a maintenance man, and the family goes into a paroxysm of joy. In such moments, one gets the sense of the working class as imagined by the upper class, the idea that poor people aren’t just willing and resigned to working hard, but they’re absolutely ecstatic about it.
Still, unlike at least 90 percent of movies, Me Before You gets better as it goes along, and that’s something.
Other new releases this week
Citizen Soldier **½ This film will have a hard time attracting attention outside the community of veterans. But that doesn't diminish its ability to put us in the shoes of ordinary men balancing boredom with life-or-death action on a daily basis.
The Phenom **½ The movie may be choppy, but it’s saying something sincere about how the pressure to be thought of as a winner can be an athlete’s most formidable opponent.
Jane Wants a Boyfriend ** A sweetly-intentioned though somewhat awkwardly structured spin on a Hallmark Channel-style dramedy that strives to shed light on Asperger’s from a female perspective.
No stars Abysmal