Slumberland

Release: Friday, November 11, 2022 (limited) 

👀 Netflix

Written by: David Guion; Michael Handelman 

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Starring: Jason Momoa; Marlow Barkley; Chris O’Dowd; Weruche Opia; Kyle Chandler; India de Beaufort 

Distributor: Netflix

 

**/*****

Slumberland is another one of those adaptations where ignorance really is bliss. You could watch this entire spectacle of Look How Much Money Netflix Has and have no idea it is actually inspired by an early twentieth century comic strip created by famed American cartoonist Winsor McCay. That’s because this expensive-looking but cheaply told fantasy adventure merely uses the iconic weekly sketch as a springboard for Jason Momoa-related shenanigans and a whole boatload of pretty but vapid CGI.

Comparisons are almost rendered pointless given how little the Netflix original, directed by The Hunger Games helmer Francis Lawrence, actually resembles the comic. The latest attempt to adapt the property is a visual adventure that flits between wild dreamscapes and waking-world tediums. The premise is loosely based on the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland and its protagonist’s penchant for drifting off into crazy adventures only to awaken in his own bed in the final panel of each strip. Here the vignettes are discarded in favor of a simple tale of a girl trying to reunite with her father in her dreams.

In a gender-swapped role newcomer Marlow Barkley inhabits the lead character of Nemo with natural confidence. She starts off the movie living an idyllic life just off the mainland in a lighthouse with her father Peter (Kyle Chandler), who regales her nightly with tales of his adventures at sea chasing after elusive magical pearls. This all comes crashing down when Peter one day does not return and Nemo is forced to move to the city with her socially awkward uncle Philip (Chris O’Dowd), a doorknob salesman. We come to learn Peter and Philip were once thick as thieves, having epic adventures as kids. But after a fall-out Philip retreated into himself and has since lived a dreary and robotic existence.

As a story about learning to deal with grief and accepting change Slumberland has the potential to be a real winner, especially when you have a good lead performance from Barkley that helps foster sympathy. There are a couple of poignant moments along the way but whatever sense of growth and maturity there is supposed to be takes such a backseat to the eye-popping landscape across which Nemo traverses — at first accompanied only by her plush toy pig, creatively named ‘Pig’ (parents should not be surprised to see this one pop up on Christmas lists this year) and, eventually, the colorful and buffoonish outlaw Flip (Momoa), who has been in Slumberland for so long he can’t remember who he is in reality.

Not that he seems to mind. In the dream world there are rules and Flip seems to have violated several of them simply by hanging around and crashing other people’s dreams. Agent Green (Weruche Opia), representing the Bureau of Subconscious Activities, is determined to lock him up once and for all, giving rise to a cat-and-mouse action caper inside a dream-state (something that sounds way more interesting written down). Momoa is clearly having a field day going full-blown Johnny Depp, his garish wardrobe a combination of Captain Jack Sparrow and something out of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. He brings an energy that may wear a little thin after two hours for the older-than-pre-teen crowd, but also makes such a routine plot feel somehow more exciting.

The world-building is undoubtedly picturesque, despite some awkward moments where you can actually see the actors standing on their marks on a big slab of concrete in a sound stage. Away from these, Slumberland unfolds into a vast network of surreal imagery and outlandish ideas in which nuns fantasize about being salsa dancers in rooms made entirely out of butterflies and Canadians are reduced to dreaming of geese the size of small airplanes. At its center, the Sea of Nightmares — a dark and forbidding region concealing the very pearls Nemo’s father had been describing. Pearls that give the possessor whatever they desire. And as we learn along the way, the alluring gems aren’t the only thing that actually exist in the real world.

Despite some genuinely nice moments, you can’t help but feel like Lawrence misses the opportunity to extract a more interesting plot out of such an idea-rich concept. To his credit he isn’t attempting to remain faithful to the comic. It just would have been nice if what he chose to do instead was something more inspired. As a visual director, it sort of makes sense what he does with Slumberland but his flashy approach doesn’t necessarily make for the strongest movie. 

Next-level waterbed

Moral of the Story: I would describe it as Inception for kids, but that might oversell the amount of thinking this movie requires. Elements of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland combine with the modern slickness of Stranger Things. The selling point is not the comic strip (Winsor McCay doesn’t even get credited) but instead Jason Momoa, who gets along great with kid actors apparently. If nothing else it’s nice to see him playing to a younger audience. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Did you ever figure it out? What the lighthouse is for?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Alpha

Release: Friday, August 17, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt

Directed by: Albert Hughes

As the dog days of summer are finally upon us, you might consider taking a walk somewhat off the beaten path by checking out Albert Hughes’ Alpha. A prehistoric epic adventure set 20,000 years ago in unrecognizable Europe, it offers a tale of suffering, survival and unexpected alliances, chronicling a young boy’s harrowing journey back home and the help he receives along the way after he becomes separated from his tribe.

Visually hypnotic, lavishly costumed and boasting a rich, ambient sound design, Alpha represents something of a dying breed of cinema when it comes to its more technical aspects. It feels far more like an artifact from a long forgotten period than a movie released in 2018. The last ice age as a setting — as much a mystical concept as it was an actual reality — reminds us of how nice it is to get away from civilization for awhile. Hughes harnesses the sheer scale of this brave new world in a few breathtaking shots of the British Columbian landscapes (a great substitute for paleolithic Europe) before homing in on a more specific purpose: what conditions might have precipitated this profound and unshakable bond we now share with dogs?

Despite its PG rating, Alpha traverses some pretty harsh terrain. Eons ago the world was a more natural place but also more hostile. Lifespans were generally characterized as short and brutal. We get a sense of all of that in this film, though the camera tidies themes up a bit by keeping most of the grisly details out of frame. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Keda, a teenager with a lot to live up to being the son of tribal chief Tau (Game of Thrones‘ Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). The epically bearded Icelandic actor imbues him as a demanding leader but also as a deeply loving father.

He is to lead his equally epically-bearded cadre of hunter-gatherers on an annual expedition to bulk up on food supplies for the coming winter. Throughout the early stages they frequently reference “the great beast.” Chief Tau insists it is Keda’s time to learn the ways of his people, while Rho (Norwegian model and actress Natassia Malthe) is less convinced of her son’s preparedness. Keda takes his initiation beating all the same — as if this custom can actually prepare him for the physical ordeals he is about to endure over the course of several grueling months.

Alpha charts a path through the vast and spectacular wilderness so easy to follow no amount of snowdrift will disorient you. Given its economic narrative, there isn’t much room for depth and nuance beyond the broad strokes of demonstrative acting. There isn’t a great deal of personality to the human characters but Smit-McPhee manages to impress in a quiet, unpretentious capacity. Like the punishing elements that surround him, he feels natural, authentic — especially in moments of peril. The authenticity goes beyond the visual. Alpha even touts its own language, with linguistic anthropologist Christine Shreyer tasked with approximating the kinds of sounds these very early people might have used to communicate.

Of course, Alpha won’t set the world on fire. It is effective for what it is — perhaps even powerful given its ostensibly restrictive MPAA rating — but I won’t hold any pretense this historical drama will siphon off even a modest chunk of the steadily superhero fatiguing public. And that is regrettable given how refreshing Alpha often feels.

Recommendation: To some extent Alpha feels like a more sanitized version of The Revenant, and while that might sound like damning with faint praise again I reiterate its PG rating. It is quite impressive what the film is able to do within those confines. And speaking of limitations, the other thing I really like about Alpha is that “epic adventure” is not a misnomer. It is indeed that, only captured in 96 quite fleeting minutes. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “Pain will journey with us.”

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May Blindspot: What About Bob? (1991)

Release: Friday, May 17, 1991

[YouTube]

Written by: Tom Schulman

Directed by: Frank Oz

Given the career Frank Oz has been able to enjoy over the span of some 40 years, a gentle comedy like What About Bob? tends to get lost in the shuffle. That’s a shame, because it’s quite funny. Wholesome in that 1990s PG-comedy kind of way; sentimental in the same.

Oz has directed Steve Martin twice and he’s kicked it with DeNiro once, so his collaboration with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss isn’t some crazy cosmic event. He’s put in the work to get here, having helped launch Jim Henson’s career in the early going with his development of both Sesame Street and The Muppets. He also curiously remade The Stepford Wives and brought chaos upon a British family in his 2007 farcical comedy Death at a Funeral. But his behind-the-scenes work didn’t become the stuff of cinematic legend until Henson repaid the favor by turning down the part of Yoda in Star Wars, recommending George Lucas cast his friend instead. And history, the rest is.

By comparison What About Bob? feels like a rather modest achievement. Modest, but not insignificant. It’s a film whose fixation upon mental health was taboo then and is, sadly, taboo now. It tries to define what sound mental health is through an exploration of an unorthodox relationship between Dr. Leo Marvin (Dreyfuss), an accomplished psychotherapist, and his high-maintenance, multi-phobic client, a neurotic New Yorker named Bob Wiley (Murray). Of course, that’s not to suggest this is a thorough interrogation of perpetually un-PC subject matter as what unfolds aims for entertainment rather than the provocation of thought and discussion. Think of it more as a friendly PSA urging us to be more tolerant of others’ quirks and mannerisms, regardless of whether they’re clinically diagnosable traits.

Dead Poets Society screenwriter Tom Schulman’s work is simply but effectively constructed, the farcical events forcing the pair of well-matched leads into comically and diametrically opposed character arcs, with Murray slowly regaining his dignity and Dreyfuss steadily going mad over the course of a fleeting hour and forty minutes. Murray is an ideal spokesperson for the quirky and off-kilter. Ostensibly, he’s bringing nothing new to his role, but that’s ironically what this overly familiar movie needs. It needs Bill Murray being Bill Murray. When Bob is first pawned off by his former counsel and onto Dr. Marvin, the actor’s eccentricities embrace you as a warm hug from a grandparent.

Meanwhile, Dreyfuss arguably outshines his costar in doing the dirty work, exuding a level of self-absorption that makes him an easy target. He comes across cold and clinical, a puffed-up, red-faced bureaucrat who cares not so much about the hippocratic oath (or maybe even his family) as he does earning more accolades and climbing further up the career ladder. Dreyfuss’s performance is outstanding, a controlled caricature of professional hubris that so perfectly culminates with a man drooling in a wheelchair.

The plot remains obvious and more than a little contrived in parts — it’s really difficult to believe a man as neurotic as Bob would actually board a public bus for New Hampshire, but we acknowledge the plot must move along somehow. You tend to get over those sorts of things, because there’s a lot of it to go round, and while the film relies mighty heavily on its star power, it’s frequent pit stopping into cliché is justified.

Dr. Marvin learns the hard way that “I’m on vacation” is a foreign concept to his oddball client. The story proper gets underway when Bob manages to track his impatient doctor down in his New Hampshire hideaway and begins the process of integrating himself into the family. Compounding Dr. Marvin’s discombobulation is the rapidly growing divide between himself and his family. He can’t comprehend the fact his wife Fay (Julie Hagerty) and children, Anna (Kathryn Erbe) and Sigmund (Charlie Korsmo), have taken a liking to this possible sociopath. Bob, who has justified his sudden appearance as him taking some of Dr. Marvin’s advice to heart (“take a vacation from your problems”), is viewed by the majority as the fun-loving drunk uncle rather than a pest who needs to be flushed out.

With all due respect to Murray, the genius that he is (and Bob is certifiably a great character), the schadenfreude that comes with Dreyfuss’ energetic, unhinged performance simply makes this experience what it is — granted, something of an echo of the trials endured by Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles four years earlier. In that film, a similarly obnoxious but well-meaning northerner effectively infiltrated the personal life of a gruff stranger, often to his own detriment, and ever-so-occasionally to surprisingly poignant effect. However, where that film truly satisfied with the way John Candy was able to finally win the other guy over, What About Bob? clumsily tries to contrive that same feeling in the final few seconds.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Recommendation: With two outstanding performances from Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss, What About Bob? becomes something I can easily suggest to viewers who are looking for another solid, perhaps overlooked Bill Murray comedy from the early ’90s. Funny, heartwarming, ultimately predictable but definitely worthwhile. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “Shit-eating son of a bitch! Bastard, douchebag, twat, numb-nuts, dickhead, BITCH!” [Editors note: I love the MPAA ratings of the ’90s.]

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Moana

moana-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jared Bush

Directed by: Ron Clements; John Musker; Don Hall; Chris Williams

Moana might just be Frozen‘s spiritual, tropical sequel. But to be honest, I’m only just guessing that — I never saw Frozen. Couldn’t stand the hype. When hype for a film made by a film company I generally do not care for reaches Frozen levels, I tend to break out in hives. So I, you know, let it go.

I was similarly skeptical of Moana but eventually was won over by the casting of The Rock as a demigod named Maui, a boastful but affable caricature of the man himself who plays a major role in Moana (newcomer Auli’i Carvalho)’s voyage. Turns out, Carvalho and Dwayne Johnson go together like peanut butter and jelly. These two are wonderful together and they make a thoroughly clichéd adventure more palatable. (Plus Maui sports tattoos that come to life and with which he frequently interacts. Such was the novelty of the concept I was left wondering what Mike Tyson’s face tattoo would say or do.)

Moana is a film about empowerment and finding your higher calling in life — not exactly a first for Disney. But their latest finds separation by not only introducing a confident young woman but through an exploration of a culture that is woefully underrepresented in modern cinema. The Mouse House has often gotten by with formulaic storytelling dressed up in different outfits, and in Moana we don the cloth of a deeply spiritual Polynesian tribe. Our heroine, in a time-honored tradition, must confront her own limitations by putting herself through a series of physical and often emotional tests that will determine not only her future but that of her own people, a once-proud band of intrepid voyagers who have come to settle on the island of Monutui.

Moana, heiress to and the daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) and Sina (Nicole Scherzinger), has a great fondness for the ocean. She’s captivated by its beauty and its infiniteness. Constantly drawn to the water’s edge as a child, she one day discovers a gem stone in the shallows, which happens to be the heart of an island goddess named Te Fiti. The stone was stolen by the demigod Maui in his attempt to gift humanity with the power of life and in a resulting fight it was lost to the depths. Now the ocean has seemingly chosen Moana as the one to restore it and to rid the Pacific islands of the darkness that has slowly been spreading ever since, a darkness that eventually hits Monutui.

When vegetation on the island starts dying off and fish become scarce, Moana suggests venturing beyond the reefs to search for what they need. Her father angrily rebuffs her, reminding her that her place in society is not on the ocean, but rather on land to take care of her people. With the encouragement of her eccentric grandmother Tala (Rachel House) who shows her a secret cave in which a fleet of boats have been permanently stored away — proof positive of her people’s history — Moana sets out on the open water, along with a mentally defective rooster named Heihei, to find Maui and to restore Te Fiti’s heart. When she finally encounters the demigod she starts to gain an understanding of what she has gotten herself into.

You see, Maui has lost his hook. And no that’s not a euphemism for him going insane. Although he is a bit kooky. Wouldn’t you be, though, if you had been stranded on a desert isle for an unspecified amount of time? Look what happened to Tom Hanks. Isolation is cruel and unusual punishment; it has turned a pro wrestler into a legitimate American Idol contestant. That’s right: The Rock can sing. And he can sing well. His moment comes in the form of ‘You’re Welcome,’ an upbeat little diddy that, resist as you might, will get your toes tapping. In it, he regales us with tales of badassery and tattooery. He’s “a hero of men.” But he’s lost his hook, the thing that gives him power to physically transform, to the monsters dwelling in the black depths of the Pacific.

Thus we get yet another one of those “You scratch my back, I scratch yours” subplots that Disney Animation animated films are so fond of, but rather than pad the run time the journey to the briny bottom gives us more insight into the mystical qualities of this universe. Down there we also get to meet Jemaine Clement‘s vainglorious crab Tamatoa. He gets a musical number of his own, also fun. Maybe now is a good time to point out how neither of these songs quite measure up to that of Carvalho’s ‘How Far I’ll Go.’ In fact ‘Shiny’ feels tedious when compared. Carvalho is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. Her singing only serves to reinforce her character’s mental tenacity. It’s actually pretty inspiring. And every bit as empowering.

Moana is 100% devoted to character. The adventure itself not only builds it, but the film centers around a strong, likable young female. Not a damsel in distress. Not a drama queen. A real human being with hopes and aspirations, quirks and flaws. Apparently there were efforts made by the filmmakers to reduce the role gender would play in the narrative. A first draft, written by Taika Waititi, identified Moana as the only daughter in a family of five or six brothers, a detail that was later changed to her being an only child so greater emphasis could be placed on her journey of self-discovery. Despite those efforts Moana has a distinctly feminist lean. Many female characters play a crucial role in the film, be they the village crazy, a giant Monterey or an angry deity. Best of all, Moana’s success or failure isn’t measured based on her ability to attract a love interest. There’s nary a romantic subplot at all, for that matter. That feels more refreshing even than a splash in the ocean on a hot sunny day.

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4-0Recommendation: Fun, lively, visually spectacular, and boasting some great (original) music, Moana is a great one for the whole family. Even when I don’t typically go for Disney Animated Studios stuff, I had a blast with this one. I’ll thank Dwayne Johnson and a fun supporting cast for that. The film also serves as an impressive calling card for the Hawaiian newcomer. Highly recommended. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “If I was called Sebastian and had a Jamaican accent, you’d help me.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The BFG

'The BFG' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Melissa Mathison

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Great Gallywampers and fiddly tweezlesticks, I is very pleased indeed that Steven Spielberg has delivered the goodles in his very first venture into Roald Dahl‘s brilliant imagurnation. The BFG is breathtaker beautiful, and not just thanks to its scrumptioutious imagery, neither. It recalls the warminess and serenity of Brian Cosgrove’s 1989 animated adventure and ‘n fact it mighty jus’ be more endearin’ because of the live-action interplayery.

No, don’t worry, I’m not gonna speak in Dahlian tongues for the entire review. That’s just my overly dramatic way of expressing relief that The BFG turns out to be the real deal, rather than a pale imitator. The story is clumsier than you might expect with a Spielbergian production — we find as many lulls in the story as we do frobscottle-induced farts (excuse me, whizzpoppers) — but that’s merely the product of a director’s faithfulness to the source material. Spielberg otherwise hits every major note with an assured and playful touch, his knack for conjuring powerful feelings of wonder and awe giving this sweet summer diversion a personality all its own.

Indeed, The BFG is mostly a success in that it doesn’t create any new problems. It merely inherits those of its ancestor — namely, the aforementioned inconsistent and at-times sluggish pace and a few leaps of faith in logic in service of a narrative that just may well be Dahl’s strangest and most fanciful. Story concerns a young girl named Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) who is whisked away one night from Mrs. Clonkers’ Orphanage by a huge, hooded creature and to Giant Country, a wondrous place filled with beauty. Do I smell a Best Visual Effects nomination? I do, as a matter of fact: that sequence in Dream Country by the dream tree is simply mesmeric.

But Giant Country isn’t total paradise, it’s fraught with danger as well. The other giants among whom the BFG ekes out a quiet existence as a Dream Blower are much larger, meaner and they eat human beings (or, beans, rather). After learning she’s not leaving Giant Country anytime soon, Sophie encourages her big friendly giant to stand up for himself and to rid the land of these brutes, led by Jemaine Clement‘s Fleshlumpeater, once and for all. The pair seek the help of the Queen (Penelope Wilton) and her Royal Army back in the real world to do just that.

As is the case with a great many Dahl adaptations, the suspension of disbelief is a requisite and that ability serves viewers well here, especially as the fearless Sophie encourages the two worlds to collide. The performances anchoring the film are so good they allow us to overlook many a flawed concept. And there are more than a few. Spielberg’s potential new muse in Mark Rylance loses himself in the role as the titular giant and very well might have upstaged David Jason’s original voice performance that made the larger-than-life being an unforgettable creation. His spoonerisms and awkward turns of phrase were a highlight of that original as they are here as well, and once again it’s a joy watching ten-year-old Sophie trying to update and expand his childlike vocabulary.

Rylance doesn’t do it alone, though. He gets tremendous support from the young Barnhill who embraces Sophie’s wide-eyed curiosity about the strange world surrounding her with real gusto. She’s also brilliant at balancing the heartbreak of growing up without parents with a sense of maturity that makes her as well-rounded a character as you’re likely going to find with a child actor. All those years ago Sophie had already been made a strong character thanks to Amanda Root’s precociousness and intellectual curiosity, and those qualities are only bolstered by Barnhill’s live-action incarnation. Most importantly, the quasi-parental bond between the two isn’t lost in translation. The problem of loneliness is resolved with respect for Dahl’s affinity for the weird very much intact come the tear-jerking conclusion.

One of the challenges Spielberg is up against with his take on a Dahlian classic is finding an audience outside of those loyal readers and those who keep the 1989 made-for-British-television special close to their heart. The BFG is certifiably obscure material but perhaps with names attached like Spielberg and Rylance it can reach for broader audiences. This uplifting, sweet tale of bravery and dream-making certainly deserves them.

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Recommendation: The BFG, as I have suspected since the announcement was first made, represents an ideal union of director and material. The world created by Roald Dahl is practically tailor-made for one of the world’s best when it comes to imaginative, inspiring filmmaking and the end product, while not perfect, is about as good as could be expected. The performances are wonderful and if you’re tired of the summer blockbuster trend, I have to recommend The BFG. Like, immediatarily. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Why did you take me?” / “Because I hears your lonely heart, ‘n all the secret whisperings of the world.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.joblo.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Jungle Book

'The Jungle Book' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 15, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Justin Marks

Directed by: Jon Favreau

Forgetting about your worries and your strife is pretty easy to do when Jon Favreau’s bold decision to remake the Disney animated classic all but steals you away to a wonderful world filled with adventure, danger and English-speaking animals.

It’s actually quite amazing how talented a director Favreau (yes, as in Tony Stark’s favorite body guard, Happy) is as his latest passion project showcases a knack for both interpretation and reinvention, borrowing that which made the 1967 animation a timeless adventure while modifying certain elements with an even more intimate examination of life in this complex jungle, first envisioned by 19th Century poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling. Though it’s not the first time the actor/director has offered up a heaping helping of popcorn-munching entertainment, The Jungle Book could well be his most complete and emotionally satisfying piece. And it has just one human actor in it.

The Jungle Book, first and foremost, is the epitome of a Disney production. It’s wholesome, family friendly and heartwarming. Our capacity for empathy is a testament to the effectiveness of the digitally-rendered characters; by all accounts this is the film we remember, only it’s not animated. Bathed in the same effervescence of innocence and self-discovery that defines Disney’s animated offerings, Favreau’s interpretation gains strength as playfulness and good spirits eventually give way to danger and darkness as the story we fell in love with so long ago is played out once more but on a much more visceral level.

That the film actually benefits from treading familiar ground is also a testament to the strength of Favreau’s convictions that this is a story worthy of the live-action treatment. More importantly, The Jungle Book hits all the beats we expect it to, even finding time to add new dimensions to the many character interactions we’ve held so dear for nearly half a century. A fixation on the harsh realities of surviving in this tropical environment also helps steer the production away from utter predictability, even though the showdowns that threaten the very fiber of the MPAA’s standards for what makes a PG-rated film are expected from the very beginning.

Favreau (yes, as in the guy whom Paul Rudd puked all over in I Love You, Man)’s wisest decision was to place emphasis on characters, letting the nature-versus-nurture debate at the heart of this tale of survival manifest naturally. As Mowgli learns the kinds of things he’s capable of — he’s quite handy when it comes to building things — is he doomed to repeat the actions of his elders? Can he be taught to be different, to not abuse the power of fire?

Mowgli (introducing Neel Sethi) first comes flying into the frame with wolves in hot pursuit, an apparent training exercise designed by his panther protector Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to help the man-cub outlast predators. We get a deeper sense of his adoptive family unit as we’re introduced to the wolf pack clan gathering at the edge of a rocky precipice, preparing for the rains that are soon to come, soon to summon animals of all kinds to a nearby watering hole. Life seems pretty swell as a member of the pack, especially if you call the honorable Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) dad and the warm, fiercely protective Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) mom.

But then there are threats to such peace, like the prowling beast Shere Khan, a villain made viable on the virtue of Idris Elba’s deep, booming voice alone — a monster of a tiger whose facial scars are inextricably linked to Mowgli’s past. This isn’t, however, a villain introduced for the sake of it. Khan’s concern is actually one shared by all sorts of animals, including the wolf pack: that the man-cub will one day be a grown man and, based on experiences, fully grown men bring nothing but death and destruction to the jungle. Animals greatly fear their “red flower;” fire, the ultimate villain, plays just as dramatic a role here as it did in the 1967 version.

Mowgli’s fate, with one or two wrinkles thrown in, is the same as before: his future is largely unknown. Bagheera and Akela agree that he’d be safer with his own kind, and Bagheera sets off on a journey with the boy that will expose the pair to intermittent treachery and silliness, including, but not limited to, seductive snakes (Scarlett Johansson as Kaa is genius casting, even if she’s underused), oafish bears desperate for honey (Bill Murray is, and probably to no one’s surprise, the pinnacle of excellence here, making for an arguably better Baloo than Phil Harris) and one gigantic ape with delusions of grandeur. (On that note, Christopher Walken unfortunately shares Johansson’s plight of being stuck with an underserved subplot; it’s basically a cameo.)

You can’t really overstate the impact an A-list cast has on a movie like this; personalities fit the wild animals to a T and all signs point to everyone involved taking this project extremely seriously . . . even Emjay Anthony, who Favreau liked enough in the making of Chef to give him a small part as one of the wolf cubs. And the knock-on effect: we, the paying customers, get to kick back and enjoy the simple bare necessities of escaping from reality and into the visual wonderland and heightened sense of humanity only anthropomorphic animals who have a tendency to break out into song and dance can provide.

The Jungle Book is many things: it’s one of the year’s biggest surprises, an achievement in CGI rendering, and a new standard to which all upcoming family outings must rise this year. Above all, it’s an immensely enjoyable blockbuster-type release. It is that way from beginning to end. Even though a few scenes expose the more obligatory side of Favreau’s directorial style — King Louie really needed a longer introduction and a less rushed exit, as did Kaa — there’s more than enough here to proclaim 2016 as the year in which Kipling’s visionary tale about man and animal coexisting became immortalized.

Recommendation: The Jungle Book is proof that sometimes, just sometimes, with great risk comes even greater reward. Jon Favreau rewards audiences with a remake that stays true to not only the characters, but the emotional challenges and even a few of the songs that popularized the original animated version. Fans of the original, it’s time to let out that sigh of relief. Favreau and his excellent cast have truly outdone themselves. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “No matter where you go or what they may call you, you will always be my son.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com