It is seldom that a movie succeeds in pleasing everybody, but the new Disney Jungle Book deserves to. It is faultlessly made, appropriately nostalgic, and entertaining as all get out. Even so, the Bear left the theater in his usual pensive mood, rather than humming "The Bare Necessities."
The Bear is deliberately not going to go into the technical details of the film. We have reached the point where computer generated imagery and live-action are indistinguishable. This may be the first movie where the audience just accepts what they are seeing on the screen without going, "Wow, that looks incredible!" like we did when we saw Avatar away back in aught nine.
Everything looks gorgeous and believable. Jungle vistas, set-piece catastrophes with hundreds, if not thousands of elements, and the fluid, realistic movement and behaviors of various animals, come across as artless. As in being without guile or effort. (Especially those of a hopelessly misplaced ursus arctos, or Brown Bear that befriends jungle boy Mowgli.) Even the physics look perfect.
The story opens with Mowgli being raised by wolves and tutored by black panther Bagheera. Although loved, he just doesn't quite fit in with the pack, and his simple, but ingenious, "man tricks" are frowned upon. Nonetheless, he joins in reciting the Wolf Creed (which will evoke fond memories in former Cub Scouts) and does his best.
But Bengal tiger Shere Khan, voiced by Idris Elba (best known as "Stringer" Bell from The Wire, although sounding more like Jason Statham here) wants Mowgli dead. They have a past, you see, involving fire, which has left the tiger blind in one eye.
The wolf pack cannot protect Mowgli from the tigrous menace, and so he volunteers to go away to a man-village to keep the peace. Bagheera, who originally brought the "man-cub" to the pack, agrees to escort him out of it. On the way, Mowgli learns to bow to elephants, who are considered to be some sort of collective creator deity by the jungle animals.
Separated from Bagheera, Mowgli meets Baloo the Bear, voiced by Bill Murray. He even sort of looks like Bill Murray around the eyes. While it may sound like a misstep sticking Bill Murray in the Indian jungle, he is not the only character with a distinctly American accent, and they all work. Scarlett Johansson's Kaa is very different from Sterling Holloway's memorable voicing in the 1967 Disney animated version; more seductive and hypnotic. Holloway's rough, high-pitched voice lent itself more to laughs. (You will want to sit through the entertaining credits, if only to hear her sing the "Trust In Me" song that didn't make it into the movie proper.)
Baloo comes across as an affable opportunist who sees in Mowgli only a way to collect otherwise unobtainable honey. They quickly bond, however, and even sing a delightfully discordant duet of "The Bare Necessities." Baloo wants to keep Mowgli in the jungle as his pal, but Bagheera shows up to quash that idea.
Perhaps this is as good a place as any to mention that a surprising amount of realistic menace and violence takes place alongside the funny and cute, so keep that in mind with little ones.
One of the most impressive sequences is when Mowgli is snatched from Bagheera and Baloo by apes. Tossed hand-to-hand across the canopy, his friends cannot readily follow, and he is delivered to an ancient temple. In an homage to Marlon Brando's introduction as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, the giant ape King Louis gradually emerges, rubbing his head, from a chiaroscuro that would make Caravaggio squint. King Louis has everything but "the red flower," or fire. He believes Mowgli, as a man-cub, can provide it.
King Louis is voiced by Christopher Walken -- another distinctive, and perhaps, risky choice. Yet once again, it works beautifully, even when he sings the "I Want to Be Like You" song as only Christopher Walken could.
The "hey, have I got the right monkey temple?" episode continues (guess which character asks that?) until it ends with a hilarious monkeys vs. Bear fight that literally brings down the house. (The Bear was pleased to see Baloo as a main character, even though he must wonder how a Brown Bear arrived in the Indian jungle. The Raj. Who can tell what Englishmen might do? It does allow for a tiger vs. Bear fight, anyway.)
The Bear will not go further with the narrative, so as not to spoil things.
The animals, with the exception of Shere Khan (who did get his eye burnt out, after all) are an appealing and peaceable lot. Presumably, the wolf pack has a vegetable garden off-camera. Nature is not red in tooth and claw. They even have their conventions, such as no fighting at the watering hole, which even Shere Khan honors. They must bow to the elephants out of respect to nature's creators and guardians.
However, as much as the Bear loved The Jungle Book 2016, he could not help but notice that when Mowgli sneaks back to the man-village one night, it is represented by figures silhouetted against an unnecessarily enormous fire. They appear as demons in Hell. Fire represents man's destructive effect on the environment. This is an important theme in the film. The animals fear man's control of "the red flower," and mistrust him on account of it. Only King Louis, as an animal the closest to man, covets stolen fire in order to become like a man himself.
This is definitely after the Fall. Man and animal do not live in harmony. Before the end, Mowgli is faced with a promethean choice that will determine his place in the world.
This is why the Bear was pensive afterwards. Is it a coincidence that it is out just in time for Earth Day? Unlike the 1967 version, Mowgli's choice between the jungle and the man-village is not made easier by a cute girl carrying a water jar. On the other hand, is man's portrayal as the faceless destroyer, unable to wisely use his powers in cooperation with nature, any less decisive than the earlier, sweet Disney version?
And Now, the Real Question
Who would win if a Bear (specifically, ursus arctos) fought a tiger? Outside of the rare and indecisive scuffle in his circus days, the Bear has wisely avoided fighting tigers, or anything else for the most part. Personally, he suspects it could go either way depending on many factors. Bears can absorb a lot of damage, and are incredibly strong, with paws like wrecking balls and jaws that can chew paving bricks like pretzels. Tigers are quick, clawed, and themselves have fearsome jaws.
But tigers are also fighting out of their weight class.
To resolve this question for his readers, the Bear turns to science: Animal Planet. Ladies and gentlemen, the Bear presents Bear vs. Tiger.