MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018) – Strangely Somber Sequel Doesn’t Measure Up

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I’ve always enjoyed Disney’s MARY POPPINS (1964), and so I was really excited to see its long-awaited sequel MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018). I had been looking forward to it for a while.

So, the fact that I didn’t really like this one, surprised me. A lot. Especially since I enjoyed Disney’s live action reworking of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) so much last year. But MARY POPPINS RETURNS didn’t work for me. Everything about it felt flat and uninspiring.

The Banks children from MARY POPPINS have grown up.  Michael (Ben Whishaw) still lives at his childhood home on Cherry Tree Lane with his three children, but sadness reigns these days, as his wife has recently passed away.  Jane (Emily Mortimer) is still single and seems to be helping Michael with his children as best she can, but it seems it’s not enough, and out from the skies returns Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) ostensibly to help the Banks children once again.

Although it’s difficult to know why she’s really there and who exactly is it she’s trying to help. Is it Michael, who seems to have forgotten what it’s like to be a child and is now a worrying grumpy adult? Is it Michael’s children who because of their mother’s death have had to grow up a little too quickly? Or is Jane who needs some pushing when it comes to relationships?  Or perhaps it’s all of the above? Either way, Mary Poppins has her work cut out for her.

And things get worse before they get better, as Michael learns the bank is about to repossess his home unless he can find a missing bank share from his father which he seems to have lost. The fact that Michael now works at the bank means little, because the head of the bank Wilkins (Colin Firth) is intent on obtaining Michael’s property and will do everything in his power to prevent Michael from paying off the loan.

There’s a lot that I did not like about MARY POPPINS RETURNS. Let’s start with the tone of this movie.  For a Disney musical, it’s filled with doom and gloom. From the photography to the subject matter, it’s a strangely dark piece.

Here we have a plot that deals with the death of a parent and with three very young children who are in a bind because their father is not emotionally equipped to take care of them once his wife has passed on.  Honestly, they need more than Mary Poppins to come swooping in singing to them about magic and the like.

Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t build a successful children’s story around death.  The recent Netflix’ Christmas movie THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES (2018) did it, and did it quite well. In that movie, the two children have lost their father, but thanks to a spirited and quite hilarious performance by Kurt Russell as Santa Claus, the film works. Russell and the script capture the magic needed to overcome a dreary tale of parental death.

The same is not true for MARY POPPINS RETURNS. The story never quite sheds the sadness associated with the death of a parent. The predominant emotion in the film is sorrow. This, in spite of the film’s best efforts to promote happiness and joy.

A big reason for this tone is the dark photography. I don’t think there’s a ray of sunshine to be found until the very end.  Director Rob Marshall made the curious choice to film this one as if he were making a movie based on a Charles Dickens novel.

The other reason I really struggled to like this movie was that Emily Blunt, an actress whose work I’ve enjoyed immensely, just never made Mary Poppins quite work for me. Like the rest of the movie, there’s just something off and harsh about her performance. She somehow misses the magic which Julie Andrews brought to the role. Blunt goes through the motions and tries her best to bring Mary Poppins to life, but there’s something missing.  That twinkle in the eye, that spark of nonsensical magic, that burst of giddy happiness, all emotions associated with Julie Andrews’ performance are somehow absent here.

I enjoyed Lin-Manuel Miranda more as Jack, a lamplighter who has taken over the Dick Van Dyke “Burt” role here. He’s the go-to guy when it comes to understanding Mary Poppins, and he gets some of the best song and dance numbers, but rather than chimney sweeps the sequel gives us lamplighters.

The rest of the cast falls flat. Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson, who play the Banks children Anabel, John, and Georgie probably fare the best. They do what they’re supposed to do, and they’re fun to watch.

But Ben Whishaw is all doom and gloom as grown up Michael Banks, so much so that he nearly gave me a headache whenever he was on-screen. Whishaw is a very good actor, and I’ve enjoyed him a lot as Q in the recent Daniel Craig James Bond movies, but here he’s stuck in a one note role.

Emily Mortimer fares a little bit better but not much as grown up Jane Banks. She’s not as dour as her brother, but she’s stuck in an unconvincing subplot that attempts to set her up with lamplighter Jack. The story never convinced me that Jane would even give Jack the time of day, and the two share no chemistry together on-screen.

Colin Firth hams it up as a rather dull villain who has no depth whatsoever. Meryl Streep has one scene, as Cousin Topsy, in one of the movie’s livelier song and dance numbers, a bit that is supposed to hearken back to the “I Love to Laugh” sequence from the original.  It’s not as good, and again, like the entire production, there’s something grating about it.

Old friend David Warner plays Admiral Boom in scenes that add nothing to the film, and Angela Lansbury has one scene as the Balloon Lady. Of course, Dick Van Dyke does show up near the end, and while he alone can’t save this one, seeing him on-screen was one of the few memorable parts about the film.

I did not enjoy the script by David Magee. First of all, it is incredibly derivative of the original.  It pretty much tells the same exact plot of the first film.  The Banks family is in trouble, and Mary Poppins arrives to save the day. Now, I’m not arguing for a screenplay that is Mary Poppins vs. the Nazis, but something a little more refreshing and different would have gone a long way here. The plot itself bored me to tears, and offered few surprises.

I also did not enjoy the theme of the adult who supposedly forgot what it was like to be a child and needs help to be reminded. We just saw this theme in the equally flawed CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018) where Pooh and friends had to save an adult Christopher Robin from himself by reminding him what it was like to be a kid. The theme didn’t work in that movie, and it doesn’t work here. There’s a reason Michael Banks is so upset, and it has nothing to do with forgetting to be a child. He’s lost his wife, and he’s about to lose his home, and he has three young children. Sorry, Disney, but Mary Poppins isn’t quite the answer to this man’s problems.

The screenplay also ignores two of the other central characters from MARY POPPINS, Jane and Michael’s parents, George and Winnifred Banks. They’re barely mentioned at all in this sequel, and if you’re a fan of the original, you kind of want to know what happened to them, since Mary Poppins didn’t arrive in that first movie only to save the children. She was there for the parents as well.

And since this sequel is so derivative of the original, at times you feel as if you are watching a remake rather than a sequel, except MARY POPPINS RETURNS has none of the memorable songs that the original had.  MARY POPPINS gave us “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Feed the Birds,” “Step in Time,” and “Chim-Chim-Cheree” to name just a few.

MARY POPPINS RETURNS does get better as it goes along, and it saves its best stuff, especially its song and dance numbers, for its second half.  The rousing “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” was probably my favorite dance number in the movie, but again, it’s highly derivative of the “Step In Time” number from the original.

The sequence involving Big Ben is also noteworthy, and the final number “Nowhere to Go But Up” is one of the better song and dance sequences in the film. Had this number occurred early on, and the rest of the film were to have gone on and explored uncharted territory, then perhaps MARY POPPINS RETURNS would have been something special.

As it stands, it’s not very special at all.

In fact, MARY POPPINS RETURNS isn’t much better than a standard by the numbers sequel, offering little to fans of the original other than a rehash of the same plot points but without the wonderful Sherman brothers’ songs.

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CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018) – Mild, Underwhelming Children’s Fare

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Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) talks with Pooh in CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018).

As a kid, I thoroughly enjoyed the Disney cartoons featuring Winnie the Pooh. My favorite was the short WINNIE THE POOH AND THE HONEY TREE (1966). So, I was eager to trek off to the theater to see CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018), a live action tale featuring a now adult Christopher Robin having one more adventure with his stuffed animal friends from the Hundred Acre Wood.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN opens nicely, with a montage chronicling the relationship between a young Christopher Robin and his “friends” Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Rabbit, Eeyore, Owl, Kanga and Roo. The opening sequence ends with Christopher Robin telling his playmates that it’s time for him to leave, that he needs to go off to school and grow up, and while Christopher seems perfectly at ease about this, Pooh and company are a little less so and are very sad to see the boy leave them, not fully understanding why he has to go.

The action then switches to years later where an adult Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) lives in London with his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Things should be wonderful, but they’re not.  Christopher has a very demanding job which keeps him away from his family, and both his wife and daughter are letting him know about it.

Meanwhile, back in the Hundred Acre Wood, Pooh has had enough of missing Christopher Robin and decides to go looking for him in the outside world. When the two meet, it’s just in time for Pooh and his friends to help Christopher see the light and realize that his family  comes first.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN looks wonderful, with its late 1940s costumes and set design, and the CGI effects on Pooh and company are flawless.  The talking stuffed animals here are sufficiently cute and cuddly.

But the plot point of a father being too busy to spend time with his family is hardly original, and since this story adds little that is new to the concept, it really works against this movie.

Plus, the story itself doesn’t hold up.

For starters, Christopher Robin is shown as a man who does love his family but unfortunately is stuck in a demanding job. It’s not as if he has the option of spending time with his family and chooses not to. He doesn’t.  If anyone needs a change of heart in this story, it’s his employer, not him.

Second, Pooh and friends don’t exactly rush to the rescue. They try to help by attempting to return to Christopher Robin the “important papers” he left behind, and when they meet Madeline they end up working together, but it’s a not a direct “rescue mission.” They do help Christopher Robin “see the light” but in a roundabout inadvertent way.

I was largely underwhelmed by CHRISTOPHER ROBIN. While I enjoyed its charm and the nostalgia of seeing Pooh and company back on-screen again, it simply wasn’t all that lively or memorable.

Director Marc Foster keeps the pace deliberate and slow, making for a rather dull movie. I’m also not quite sure who the film is marketed for. The family drama which takes up most of the movie is definitely geared more for adults, while Pooh’s story is seemingly aimed at the very young.  It’s not the kind of lively script that’s going to hold the interest of older children.

Foster also directed QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), the second Daniel Craig James Bond film, a movie a lot of people didn’t like, but it’s one of my favorite Craig Bonds, as well as the horror movie WORLD WAR Z (2013). CHRISTOPHER ROBIN is a far cry from these two movies, and I can’t say that I enjoyed it as much as I did SOLACE and Z.

The screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, and Allison Schroeder is pleasant but uninspiring. Pooh and his buddies enjoy plenty of little moments but few if any big ones. The family tale of Christopher Robin trying to make time for his family largely falls flat. The result is a mixed bag of a script which tends to gravitate to the mundane, even with the majority of the characters being CGI created fluffy stuffed animals that can talk.

Tom McCarthy was one of the writers who wrote SPOTLIGHT (2015), while Allison Schroeder was one of the writers who worked on HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), two phenomenal movies. CHRISTOPHER ROBIN is not on the level of either one of these. Not even close.

Ewan McGregor is okay in the lead role as the adult Christopher Robin, but he certainly didn’t wow me. In fact, the character rather bored me, and so if Christopher Robin is guilty of anything in this movie, it’s that he’s become a dull unimaginative adult rather than an overworked one, yet the script doesn’t really play up this angle.

Likewise, Hayley Atwell is just okay as Evelyn, the wife who is clearly frustrated with her busy husband and can’t seem to get through to him. Atwell is known these days as Agent Peggy Carter in some of the Marvel superhero movies and the short-lived AGENT CARTER TV series (2015-16).

In the important role of young Madeline Robin, Bronte Carmichael acquits herself well, but the character struggles to rise above the cliché.

The voice actors don’t fare all that better, except for Jim Cummings, who provides the voices of both Pooh and Tigger. Cummings has been voicing these characters for quite a while now, since the 1980s, and he does a fine job here. Pooh and Tigger were probably my two favorite characters in the movie.

Brad Garrett voiced Eeyore, Nick Mohammed provided the voice for Piglet, Peter Capaldi lent his voice for Rabbit, Sophie Okonedo for Kanga, Sara Sheen voiced Roo, and veteran character actor Toby Jones provided the voice for Owl. All of these folks were okay but no one knocked it out of the park.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN taken as a whole was largely underwhelming. The adults in the story were dull, the main child a cliché, and the talking stuffed animals were oddly reserved and rather passive. Worse, its main story of a father who’s “lost his way” and needs to reconnect with his family doesn’t really resonate or have the desired impact. That’s because the adult Christopher Robin in this movie is not a man who now shuns his childhood imagination and replaces it with a love of work, but rather, he’s a man who’s simply too busy to recall the imagination he once had. And the realization that “hey, maybe I can be a bit less busy,” really isn’t all that dramatic or compelling.

As a result, CHRISTOPHER ROBIN is a mildly entertaining movie, best reserved for folks who enjoyed Pooh as a kid and are curious to see him on the big screen again. It should serve as a fair reunion.

I seriously doubt many new fans will emerge after watching this movie.

For me though, CHRISTOPHER ROBIN didn’t come close to satisfying my appetite for a new Pooh adventure.

Yep, there’s still a rumbly in my tumbly.

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YOUR MOVIE LISTS: SCARLET JOHANSSON – 2017

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YOUR MOVIE LISTS:  Scarlett Johansson

By Michael Arruda

Scarlett Johansson has made a few more movies since I posted this list in 2014.  Here’s an update, including movies through June 2017:

Welcome to another edition of YOUR MOVIE LISTS, the column where you’ll find lists of odds and ends about movies.  Up today, a look at films starring Scarlett Johansson.  Here is a partial list of her movies:

EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS (2002) – frightened by giant spiders in this horror movie starring David Arquette.

LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) – hanging out with Bill Murray in Japan in this quirky film by writer/director Sofia Coppola.

THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE (2004) – lends her voice to this big screen adventure featuring SpongeBob, Patrick, and their undersea buddies.

MATCH POINT (2005) – really shines in this Woody Allen drama starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

THE PRESTIGE (2006) – Part of the rivalry between magicians Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in this Christopher Nolan thriller.

VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA (2008) – Another Woody Allen drama, this time with Javier Bardem.

IRON MAN 2 (2010) – Hello Black Widow!  Johansson is the best part of this underwhelming IRON MAN sequel.

THE AVENGERS (2012) – Johansson’s Black Widow is the sexiest crime fighting heroine since Diana Rigg in the other THE AVENGERS, the 1960s TV show with Patrick MacNee.

HITCHCOCK (2012) – Playing Janet Leigh to Anthony Hopkins’ Hitch.

DON JON (2013) – Loses her boyfriend first to porn and then to older woman Julianne Moore in this quirky innovative movie by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

HER (2013) – seduces Joaquin Phoenix with only her voice in this Oscar-nominated movie.

CHEF (2014) – has too small a role in this comedy drama by actor/director Jon Favreau.

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) – Black Widow is back and she’s still kicking butt and looking incredibly sexy doing it in this superior CAPTAIN AMERICA sequel.

LUCY (2014) – She’s the best part of this science fiction thriller about a woman who suddenly finds herself able to access her full brain capacity.

AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON (2015) – fourth appearance as Black Widow in this AVENGERS sequel, which is not as good as the first.

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016) – has one of the best scenes in the movie, a hilariously sexy sequence with Jonah Hill, in this otherwise underwhelming misfire by the Coen Brothers.

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) – provides the voice for the snake Kaa in this impressive Disney remake of the Rudyard Kipling tale, well-directed by Jon Favreau.

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR (2016):  fifth turn as the sexy Black Widow in the third CAPTAIN AMERICA movie and one of Marvel’s all time best.  This rousing superhero film plays like THE AVENGERS 2.5 and contains some of the most entertaining sequences in the Marvel movie universe thus far.

GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) – plays the lead role of the Major, a cyborg crime fighter, in this disappointing remake of the classic Japanese animated film.

ROUGH NIGHT (2017) –  it’s a girl’s night out gone wrong as Johansson plays a woman enjoying a reunion with her college friends when they accidentally kill a male stripper.  This dreadful looking comedy opened to negative reviews and received a “pass” by me, as in “I’ll pass on this one, thank you very much.”

And look for Johansson to return as Black Widow for the sixth time in the third AVENGERS movie, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, due out in 2018.  Sadly still no sign of that stand alone Black Widow movie,  rumored to be in the works a few years ago.

There you have it, a partial list of some notable Scarlett Johansson movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) Still Has The Songs

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It’s all about the music.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), Disney’s live-action remake of their beloved animated classic from 1991, succeeds for the simple reason that it’s still got those songs by Alan Menken.  Everything else is gravy.

I enjoyed this new version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST so much I’m going to say something here that will be sacrilege for those who love the 1991 film version: I liked this new version better. 

Sure, I really liked the 1991 animated film and was glad it received a Best Picture nomination that year, but for me the best part of that film has always been Alan Menken’s songs.  In fact, his score was so good I’ve always thought it really deserved to be in a film with real actors as opposed to animated ones.

This 2017 version gives Menken’s music the platform it has always deserved.

The plot, of course, remains the same.  A handsome but selfish prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed for his meanness and turned into a hideous Beast.  His servants are cursed as well, as they are all transformed into household items.

Meanwhile, in a neighboring village, an “odd” farm girl Belle (Emma Watson) who would rather read books than marry the muscular village heart-throb Gaston (Luke Evans) lives with her equally eccentric inventor father Maurice (Kevin Kline).  When Maurice becomes lost in the woods and finds himself at the Beast’s castle, he is taken prisoner there.  Belle comes to his rescue and makes a deal with the Beast to take her father’s place.

We then learn that in order to break the curse, someone must fall in love with the Beast, and the former servants who are now household objects believe Belle is this women, and they go out of their way to arrange a romance between Belle and the Beast.

This 2017 version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is probably not going to receive the recognition which the 1991 animated hit received, which is too bad because it’s a very good movie.  It’s grand entertainment from beginning to end.  That being said, it’s not without flaws, but even these drawbacks don’t derail this two-hour and nine minute musical.

Many have lamented that Disney chose as its director for this film Bill Condon, the man who directed the awful THE TWILIGHT SAGA:  BREAKING DAWN – PART 1 (2011) and PART 2 (2012),  but Condon also directed MR. HOLMES (2015), an intriguing tale of an aged, dementia-suffering Sherlock Holmes, and GODS AND MONSTERS (1998), an equally engaging movie about the later days of FRANKENSTEIN director James Whale, both films starring Ian McKellen in the lead roles, who also appears here in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

Condon’s work here is closer in quality to MR. HOLMES and GODS AND MONSTERS than those horrible TWILIGHT movies.  The film is colorful and beautiful to look at, the pacing is upbeat, and for a two-hour plus film it doesn’t drag at all, and the musical numbers are lively and satisfying.

Emma Watson has also been receiving her fair share of criticism for a rather flat portrayal of Belle.  Sure, Watson doesn’t play Belle like a princess.  She plays her like a bookish farm girl who is more interested in imagination than romance, which is exactly how Belle should be portrayed.  So, while I agree that at times Belle isn’t the most exciting woman on the planet, she’s not supposed to be.  I thought Watson nailed Belle’s persona.

I did have a little bit of a problem with the CGI used on the Beast, and it’s not that the Beast looked fake— he looked fine— but that he looked a bit too handsome.  He’s not very beastlike in appearance.  He’s not hideous or revolting or frightening.  He’s pretty darn good-looking for a beast.  I kept thinking of that line from the song “Werewolves of London”:  And his hair was perfect.

As the Beast, Dan Stevens does a serviceable job providing the voice, and even displays some well-timed humor when he’s the prince at the end of the movie.

The rest of the CGI effects on the occupants of the castle are unusually understated and simple. Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and Chip all look rather plain. Some have interpreted this as inferior CGI, but I liked this effect.  It kept the film from going down the road of high silliness.

Kevin Kline turns in a nice performance as Belle’s father Maurice, and he enjoys some fine moments.

But hands down the two best performances in the movie belong to Luke Evans as Gaston and Josh Gad as LeFou.  Now, in the 1991 animated version, these two provided the comic relief and were over-the-top ridiculous.  As such, they were probably my least two favorite characters in the 1991 version.  It’s the exact opposite here.

While they remain over-the-top and again provide comic relief, both Evans and Gad add so much more to their performances, giving these characters nuances which simply weren’t there in the original.  Evans, as the handsome cad who every woman in the village other than Belle pines for, plays this aspect to the hilt, but he also grounds the character with a sense of military realism that makes Gaston more of a three-dimensional villain here.

As good as Evans is, Josh Gad is even better as LeFou.  He provides several laugh-out-loud moments in this movie, and he makes LeFou much more than just the mindless bumbling sidekick we saw in the animated version.  This LeFou is a real person.  Much has been made about the gay angle of the character, and all I can say is it works wonderfully and it’s a natural progression for the character.

Ewan McGregor is serviceable as Lumiere, but the rest of the cast is hardly noticeable, and this includes some big names.  Ian McKellen barely registers as Cogsworth, and Emma Thompson, while fine as Mts. Potts, doesn’t stand out either.  Even Stanley Tucci is restrained as Maestro Cadenza.  But somehow, none of this really gets in the way of the success of this movie.

And to come full circle, the reason again is the music by Alan Menken.  Somehow, those songs sound even better today.

Menken’s music score and songs have always cried out for a live action rendition.

The 2017 version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is that rendition.

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THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) Remake Is A Rousing Adventure

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Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities, forget about your worries and your strife—.

Eh hem.  Excuse me.  I got carried away.

“The Bare Necessities” is one of my favorite songs from the 1967 animated Disney THE JUNGLE BOOK— one of my favorite movies of all time— and I’m happy to say it makes it into the 2016 remake by director Jon Favreau.

Because I’m a huge fan of the 1967 film, I was certainly looking forward to this new version of THE JUNGLE BOOK.  At the same time, I was wary that it wouldn’t be able to live up to the classic animated film.  While I probably still prefer the 1967 movie— it’s been a favorite for so long— this new remake comes pretty darn close to satisfying on all levels. In short, it’s a pretty darn good movie.

Now, there’s also a 1994 live action version of THE JUNGLE BOOK, also produced by Disney, that I have not seen, a version that was not well received upon its initial release, although there are some folks who swear by it.  Not to mention the 1942 version starring Sabu.  But for me, the 1967 animated film has always been the most endearing.  Now comes the 2016 THE JUNGLE BOOK. All of these films are based on the collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling.

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) opens with an homage to the 1967 film, using the same music and the very same opening shot.  But this is no shot-by-shot remake, as there are plenty of differences between the two films.

THE JUNGLE BOOK is the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi) a young boy who had been abandoned in the jungle only to be rescued by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) who turned him over to a wolf pack, where he was raised as a wolf.  Mowgli enjoyed a happy life with the pack, with his adopted parents Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyon’go), and wolf cub brothers and sisters.

All is well until the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) who hates and fears humans decides that Mowgli must die.  The pack realizes that even with their combined strength, they are no match for Shere Khan, and so they arrange for Bagheera to bring Mowgli back to the man-village, to live safely with his own kind.

But Shere Khan is wise to their plan and attempts to kill Mowgli while he is still with Bagheera, who fights off the tiger while telling Mowgli to run, which the youth does.  On his own in the jungle, things look bleak for Mowgli until he is rescued by the laid-back Baloo the Bear (Bill Murray).

But the danger is far from over.  Threats lurk behind every tree, as Mowgli and his friends must contend with Kaa the snake (Scarlett Johansson), King Louie (Christopher Walken) and his army of apes, and of course Shere Khan.

There is a lot to like about this new version of THE JUNGLE BOOK.  Probably my favorite part is the serious tone this movie takes. While director Jon Favreau keeps this one family friendly, it is not overly silly or nonstop funny as a lot of the “family” animated films are these days.  While there are certainly humorous moments in the film, for the most part, this JUNGLE BOOK is a serious adventure.  It even contains some rather dark moments.

When Bagheera tangles with Shere Khan to protect Mowgli it’s an exciting and rather vicious sequence.  For those of us who grew up with the 1967 version and wondered what it would be like if Bagheera actually fought Shere Khan, this film provides the answer.

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To protect Mowgli, Bagheera the Panther prepares to tangle with Shere Khan the Tiger.

The flashback sequence where we learn what happened to Mowgli’s real father is intense and disturbing.  Likewise, the fate of Mowgli’s wolf father Akela is just as jarring.

Christopher Walken’s King Louie is larger than life and powerfully aggressive.  There’s more King Kong in this interpretation than Louie.  Similarly, Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa the Snake is mesmerizing and frightening.

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Christopher Walken’s King Louie.

The cast is fantastic.  Young Neel Sethi is perfect as Mowgli, and all the voice actors here do a terrific job.

Ben Kingsley makes for a majestic Bagheera, matching Sebastian Cabot’s effort in the original.  Even better is Idris Elba as Shere Khan.  He turns the tiger into an absolute villain in this one, making Shere Khan lethal and scary.  George Sanders voiced the tiger in the 1967 film, and he gave the character an elegant gentlemanly villainy.  Anything remotely sophisticated is gone here.  Elba’s Shere Khan is less a proper Bond villain and more like someone you’d meet on THE WALKING DEAD.  He’s not a nice guy.

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Shere Khan.

Lupita Nyong’o is phenomenal as Mowgli’s wolf mother Raksha, while Giancarlo Esposito made me forget his icy portrayal of drug kingpin Gus Fring on TV’s BREAKING BAD and provides a dignified voice for Mowgli’s wolf father Akela.  Scarlett Johansson is spot-on as the menacing and mesmerizing snake Kaa, and Christopher Walken, in what is probably my favorite performance in the movie, makes King Louie a scene-stealing simian who seems like he walked off the set of the recent PLANET OF THE APES reboots with Andy Serkis.  Walken’s Louie is much more monstrous than the Louie from the animated version.

Emjay Anthony, who played Jon Favreau’s son in Favreau’s CHEF (2014),  and who I also enjoyed in the surprisingly good horror movie KRAMPUS (2015), is very effective as one of Mowgli’s wolf cub brothers.  And Garry Shandling, who passed away last month, provides the voice for Ikki the porcupine.

Of course, Bill Murray probably has the biggest shoes to fill, playing the most iconic character from the animated movie, Baloo the Bear, voiced with impeccable perfection by country singer Phil Harris back in 1967.  While Murray certainly didn’t make me forget Harris, he more than holds his own and all in all does a decent job with the character. It helps that Baloo seems to be a natural fit for Murray.  He even gets to sing “The Bare Necessities.”

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Baloo the Bear

This being a more serious rendition of the story, most of the memorable songs from the animated version by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman do not make it into this film, but a few do.

As I said, Bill Murray’s Baloo does perform “The Bare Necessities,” and some of the other familiar themes do make it into the film as background music, as in the Kaa the snake sequence.  Christopher Walken’s rendition of “I Wanna Be Like You” is the only song that is somewhat awkward.  Walken’s King Louie is just a bit too frightening to accept his breaking into song, and yet there is just something creepy enough about his Kong-like character singing that makes the scene work.

The CGI animation here is top-notch.  The animals all look amazing, especially Shere Khan, who is absolutely frightening.  While the film is available in 3D, I saw it in 2D and it looked just fine.

Jon Favreau does a terrific job here all around, from creating exciting suspenseful scenes to the superb CGI animation.  He also crafts some poignant moments as well, like the tender scenes between Mowgli and Raksha, and the sequence involving Mowgli and the elephants.

Rounding out this solid production is the screenplay by Justin Marks.  It keeps things serious throughout without sacrificing the “family” feel of the tale. So many of today’s CGI animated children’s movies are steeped in adult humor, and while this can be a lot of fun, the adventurous tone in THE JUNGLE BOOK is satisfying and refreshing.

If you’re in the mood for a rousing adventure, a film fit for the entire family, then look no further than Jon Favreau’s exceptional remake of THE JUNGLE BOOK.

The bare necessities of life will come to you
They’ll come to you!

—END—