The Jungle Book

Is it possible for a movie to feel like a classic, but also seem fresh and original? Even though that may seem like a contradiction, director Jon Favreau’s new version of The Jungle Book has both qualities.

This is classic Disney stuff. Well, yes, it’s a remake of the 1967 animated Disney film.

It has the elements we’ve seen in numerous Disney films and TV shows. Animals interacting with humans, angrily and peacefully. Cute kids (human and animal). Benevolent adults and threatening adults (animal and human). Absent parents (human and animal). Moments of peril—some a bit frightening—and moments of sweetness. A manipulative—in a good way– soundtrack that plays almost constantly.

And a wise voice-over narration. On the Wonderful World of Disney TV show, it was generally the folksy Rex Allen Jr. Here it’s Ben Kingsley, who also voices the Panther, Bagheera, a good guy who helps guide the young man-cub Mowgli (the amazing Neel Sethi) through his upbringing in the jungle. (Sethi is an Indian-American, born in New York City, and he is brimming with charm and acting talent.)

The animals look realistic and move believably, thanks to actors wearing motion-capture gear and rapidly advancing CGI technology. There’s a reason the credits say the movie was made “in downtown Los Angeles” and that’s the outstanding work of the tech crews based there.

Along with Sethi’s charm and athletic skill, the highlights of the movie are two of the characters Mowgli meets in his quest. Baloo, the bear, is voiced by Bill Murray (who sings Bare Necessities) and King Louie, a monster gorilla, voiced by Christopher Walken (who sings I Wanna Be Like You). They are big characters, physically, and they make a huge impact on the story.

Other voice talents who shine are Idris Elba as Shere Khan, the menacing tiger; Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha, the wolf mother; Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, the snake; and Garry Shandling as Ikki, the porcupine.

Clocking in at 1:45, The Jungle Book moves at a fast pace that will keep kids of all ages engaged. For those who might say, “Why did they need to remake this movie?—the first one was just fine,” let me suggest you go SEE the new version and you’ll understand why. The Jungle Book is not flawless, but it is an impressive, entertaining movie. (Spring for the IMAX 3D screening if you can.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zootopia

Zootopia looks great and has spectacular voice work, but it lacks the magic that would elevate it to the top rung of Disney animation work. Zootopia’s plot exposition and message causes it to fall short in the pure fun and laughter departments. But don’t let those slight qualms stop you from seeing it.

Judy Hopps (Gennifer Goodwin) is a bunny whose farmer parents (Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake) encourage her to set her personal ambition bar low and settle. Judy, however, wants to move to the city of Zootopia and join the police force.

Zootopia looks like a cross between Shanghai and the Capitol in The Hunger Games. This fauna universe is divided into zones that include a rain forest, a desert and a wintry world, as well as the downtown area. It’s a city where all the animals coexist peacefully because the predators have somehow mellowed out.

After Judy becomes an officer, her boss Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) limits her work to issuing parking citations. She does her best, writing hundreds of tickets each day. On the street, she encounters a nemesis, soon to become an ally, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox.

Zootopia has two main messages. #1. Don’t get in a hurry when you visit the license office—especially in Zootopia where the DMV is staffed by sloths. (See trailer at top of this post.) #2. You can overcome stereotypes and be who you want to be. Judy, a bunny, is typically too small to be a cop. And Nick, a fox, turns to a life of deception because, well, foxes are scheming hustlers.

The film’s story centers around a group of predators who have reverted to their violent ways and are being caged on the edge of town. What’s causing them to go back to their instinctive states? Judy goes to work to solve the mystery and Nick pitches in.

Since this animal world is a metaphor for our human society, I wonder who the suddenly-wild-and-dangerous-again predators are supposed to represent. I don’t dare speculate here for fear of offending a particular race or ethnic group.

A few more of the talented voice cast members who populate Zootopia are Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Jenny Slate, Alan Tudyk, Octavia Spencer and, as a singing Gazelle called Gazelle, Shakira.

Zootopia, like the best animation efforts of the past few decades, has fun stuff for adults as well as kids. I suggest you view the film as a light amusement and don’t worry about messages or metaphors. Zootopia is not an all-time great, but it’s pretty good!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim throws bigger-than-life robot/monster battles and a good mix of human characters at moviegoers and keeps it all PG-13. Grab a tub of popcorn, slap on your 3-D glasses and hang on for the ride.

Despite being derivative on many levels, Pacific Rim somehow feels fresh—not unlike certain musical acts that combine familiar influences to bring output that sounds new. The effects are impressive. The monsters are enormous. Unlike the mid-20th century Japanese film monsters that moved haltingly, movement in Pacific Rim is smooth and fast. The bots are gigantic. They, too, move well, though a bit more deliberately.

Is Pacific Rim just a new spin on the Transformers movies? No. Despite the audio similarities (abundant metal clangs) and a dependence on spectacular robots, Pacific Rim tells a better story. Director Guillermo Toro (of Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth fame) has crafted a film that’s entertaining visually and has a decent narrative.

Along with the old Japanese monster movies and the Transformers films, my son, a huge anime fan, notes many similarities between Pacific Rim and the Evangelion series.

Rather than build up gradually to the first look at the huge kaiju monsters, Pacific Rim jumps into action immediately. The world’s nations unite to fight them. Turns out the best way to do it is with giant robots called Jaegers, controlled from within by humans. (My mother-in-law informs me that the word “jaeger” is German for “hunter.”) Because the job is so daunting, the bots require two people to guide them. Partners must do a sort of mind meld (they call it a “drift”) with one another, so as to assure they are simpatico.

Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) bails on the bot gig after his brother/partner is killed in a kaiju battle. Five years later, world leaders decide fighting kaiju with Jaegers is futile. (Their new strategy is building large walls along coastlines.) The battle bot boss, known as “Marshall” (Idris Elba), has stashed the last few remaining Jaegers in Hong Kong and brings Becket back for the final assault on the kaiju.

Hong Kong introduces new characters into the mix, including Mako Mori (Rinko Kiruchi) as Becket’s eventual robot mate, geeky kaiju researcher Dr. Newton Geizler (Charlie Day) and kaiju body parts harvester Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman). The sexual tension between Becket and Mori is instant. Mori’s backstory (shown frighteningly by Mana Ashida as a young Mori) complicates their relationship.

The final faceoff with between the kaiju and the Jaegers is fought underwater, deep in the Pacific. You might be able to guess the final outcome.

Should Pacific Rim become a hit—without a single bankable Hollywood star, by the way—I would speculate that more previously undetected kaiju might suddenly emerge from the depths. And a sequel might emerge from Legendary and Warner Brothers. Stay tuned.