The Jungle Book ****
Dir: Jon Favreau
Starring: Neel Sethi, (voices of) Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, Christopher Walken
The animated 1967 version of The Jungle Book (the last movie that Walt Disney personally oversaw before his passing) is my absolute favourite Disney animated film. That movie is an absolute joy and still brings a smile to my face whenever I see it as do its fantastic songs. So I wasn’t convinced by Disney’s decision to make a live-action update of the film, despite its fairly decent track record in that department (101 Dalmations, Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty).
However, I am glad to say that director Jon Favreau has managed to exceed all expectations. Calling the movie live-action is a bit of a misnomer as apart from newcomer Neel Sethi as the man-cub Mowgli everything else in the movie is computer generated. Favreau and his team of CGI artists create a hyper-reality in their depiction of the Indian jungle and its animal residents, adding muscle and sinew to the tiger Shere Khan, the panther Bagheera, the bear Baloo, the python Kaa, the wolves Akela and Raksha and the rest of the fauna and flora. The movie takes its cue from the 1967 screenplay rather than the episodic nature of the original Kipling stories as it follows Bagheera’s attempts to return reluctant wolf-boy Mowgli to the “man-village” to save him from a murderous Shere Khan but it is not a slave to it, adding the Kipling tale of the water-truce, for instance. The new version is also more intense and more of an action-adventure as the CGI “reality” allows for a greater sense of danger (though nothing too scary for the young ‘uns) while the animated version was more of a musical comedy. This new version isn’t completely song-less as you do get its renderings of those two wonderful songs, “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You” (I think there would have been rioting if they hadn’t been included in some way) and, somehow, Favreau makes it work despite musical ditties not necessarily being in line with the flavour of the update.
Neel Sethi is charming and energetic though, perhaps, necessarily limited in his range of emotions by having to act primarily against a green screen and with stand-in puppets. Bill Murray is perfectly cast as the voice of the lazy Baloo as is Ben Kingsley as the gruff but caring Bagheera while Christopher Walken makes for an effectively sinister gigantopithecus (a giant orangutan) by way of Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. However, while Idris Elba is fine as Shere Khan he does pale in comparison to the brilliant George Sanders in the 1967 version – I’d rather have Shere Khan sounding like royalty than an East End thug. Scarlett Johansson, though, could have done more with the hypnotic allure of her sibilant Kaa (but do watch out for her seductive version of the song “Trust In Me” as it plays over the end credits).
If you loved the 1967 animated version you won’t be let down by this. A great time out for the whole family.
Cut to chase: Does its revered animated predecessor proud.
Dir: Maneesh Sharma
Starring: Shah Rukh Khan, Waluscha DeSousa, Deepika Amin, Yogendra Tiku, Shriya Pilgaonkar , Sayani Gupta
Box-office success aside, Shah Rukh Khan’s oeuvre has largely been disappointing since his 2007 one-two punch of Om Shanti Om and Chak De! India. Perhaps the superstar has realised this himself and has therefore decided to take on more challenging fare. Whatever the reason, it would be difficult to find a more testing or esoteric or meta a project than Fan, a film about an obsessed groupie, Gaurav Chandna and the object of his obsession, movie superstar Aryan Khanna. Both Gaurav and Aryan are essayed by Shah Rukh Khan and, with the help of some fine CGI, he manages to create two distinct personas. Even more creditable, he allows for Aryan to be modelled extremely closely on the real-life Shah Rukh. Since Aryan isn’t necessarily depicted in the most flattering of lights (and brings into question his relationship with his fans) Shah Rukh’s willingness to take on this film is more than surprising and more than courageous. So kudos to him and may he continue to experiment and challenge himself.
However, while Shah Rukh is to be lauded for his bravery and for his knowing and subtle performance(s), the movie itself ultimately lets him down. The first half of Fan is finely realised with its slowly rising creepiness as it begins to dawn on us that this is not going to be a merry romp and that something may not be quite right with Gaurav. However, post-interval the movie escalates from one improbability to the next till one can no longer suspend disbelief. This is a pity because the subject matter and Shah Rukh deserved better. If only the second half of the movie had managed to match the excellence of the first.
The movie itself doesn’t deserve more than two and a half stars but Shah Rukh’s gutsy choice and the meta-textual subject matter merit the extra half star.
Cut to chase: Shah Rukh’s courage isn’t matched by the film’s script.
Kmumtaz1@hotmail.com; witter: @KhusroMumtaz
* Not on your life ** Hardly worth the bother ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only *** Good enough for a look see ***½ Recommended viewing **** Don’t miss it **** ½ Almost perfect ***** Perfection