Blu-ray Review: The Jungle Book (2016)

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First off, Disney's The Jungle Book took the worldwide box office by storm during spring and summer of this year ($960 million; it's still on 352 U.S. screens as I type this). It hits Blu-ray and DVD on August 30 (it's already available on Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere as of August 23).

Secondly, allow me to indulge in a bit of personal perspective because I think some potential viewwers may find it helpful. I resisted Jon Favreau's live-action The Jungle Book when it cleaned up in theaters (grossing over $955 million worldwide) during spring and summer. It's for kids, right? I'm not a parent, probably nothing in it for me. Plus I have fond memories of the classic, freewheelin' 1967 Disney animated version—why risk compromising that? Oh, and I guess I'm probably still harboring resentment that Favreau didn't direct Iron Man 3, choosing instead to do the okay-but-unmemorable Cowboys & Aliens (and don't even get me started on 2014's Chef). Leave this one for the kiddies, right?

jungle book 2.jpg Boy, was I wrong to put off seeing The Jungle Book. This is a spectacular piece of entertainment that succeeds on every level. It's approach to the Rudyard Kipling source material is so different than the '67 animated film that comparisons are hardly warranted—each film stands entirely on its own. Though its level of complexity is clearly aimed at younger viewers, there is a depth of feeling between Mowgli's (Neel Sethi) relationships with Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray) and Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) that makes it suitable for adult viewing as well. Mowgli is the boy raised by wolves in the jungle, educated by panther Bagheera and befriended by sloth bear Baloo. There's danger in Favreau's jungle, with Shere Khan the tiger (voiced with seething malevolence by Idris Elba), python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), and orangutan King Louie (Christopher Walken) all proving formidable foes during Mowgli's journey. 

jungle book 1.jpg Yes, it's intense stuff for the youngest viewers. But the brilliance of Favreau's decision to maintain a serious, and at times dark, tone is that youngsters aren't likely to outgrow it anytime soon. If I jumped a couple times at some of the animal attacks (and yes, I did), some the youngest kids watching this were probably understandably freaked out (in addition to fierce predatory behavior by some characters, not everyone makes it out alive). But as they get older, the film will be something former-kids can continue to watch as—although it will eventually be less startling, the inherent intensity will ensure the film doesn't play too "kid-oriented" to teen and even adult viewers. As Mowgli, young star Sethi is perhaps unremarkable in terms of presence, but he's also refreshingly unaffected. His Mowgli is natural—never irritating or excessively cutesy—and that's Sethi's greatest contribution to the film. 
jungle book 3.jpg The only aspect of The Jungle Book that is arguably out of place are the songs (held over from the Disney animated original, "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wan'na Be Like You"). Although I understand Favreau's desire to connect with (and pay tribute to) the nearly 50-year-old animated feature, but here they feel out of place and out of step with the live-action film's tone.

That's an exceptionally minor caveat, all things considered. The digital animation here is breathtaking. Just when it has become easy to adopt a tone of cynicism about CG effects due to having seemingly seen it all, along comes The Jungle Book which sets a whole new standard for photo-realism when it comes to both animals and environments. Even if you simply cannot get past the family-film atmosphere, this is one film that should be watched simply to soak in the visuals.

Speaking of which, Disney's Blu-ray presentation is peerless. The 1080p transfer of those dazzling visual effects and Bill Pope's cinematography is perfect in terms of clarity and detail. No less impressive is the extremely active and immersive DTS-HD MA 7.1 surround mix.

If there's anything that just might incite disappointment, it's the relatively lack of bonus features. There is a Jon Favreau audio commentary which is a treat for older viewers looking for a greater understanding of the director's methods of adapting The Jungle Book. For a more casual overview of the film's production, the 35-minute "The Jungle Book Reimagined" offers a neat, concise look. "I Am Mowgli" is a shorter (eight minutes) piece focused on young star Neel Sethi. "King Louie's Temple: Layer by Layer" is a mini-featurette (three minutes) that deals with the King Louie musical segment.

The Jungle Book is likely to prove a perennial family classic. It's visually thrilling, funny, emotionally involving, and just intense enough to hold the attention of viewers regardless of age. Unless you're hopelessly allergic to anything involving talking animals and/or child actors, The Jungle Book is unmissable.

Jungle Book BD cover (328x380).jpg

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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