Friday, September 16, 2016

Live-Action "The Jungle Book" Provides Fresh Take On Old Tale

Jon Favreau's take on The Jungle Book is pretty damn good.
In recent years, Disney has fully committed to remaking their animated films in live action. Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Maleficent, Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass, The Jungle Book and the recently released Pete's Dragon have already come out, and a slew of others, including the hotly-anticipated Emma Watson-led Beauty and the Beast, are in the pipeline.

The strategy makes sense. The six films Disney has already released have garnered upwards of $2.5 billion worldwide. Why attempt to create something new when that kind of lucrative layup is right there for the taking?

I'm generally ambivalent about the concept of remakes, although I'll cop to preferring an artistically legit, non-monetary reason for making one. I prefer remakes that improve upon flawed films in some way (Ocean's 11), bring great stories to a larger audience (e.g. Insomnia, The Departed), or add some new wrinkle or point of view. For all its flaws, Maleficent accomplished that last point, while films like Cinderella and Alice and Wonderland felt like pure cash grabs through and through.

Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book proves itself worthy. The fact that effects have advanced to the point that this world can be believably rendered in "live action" could justify a remake on its own, but the film seals the deal by taking a decidedly modern approach to a story that has long been stuck in antiquated and offensive concepts of racial superiority. As originally conceived by Rudyard Kipling and then reiterated in the 1967 animated version, this story has historically advocated that we all need to be put in our proper place. It's imperialistic propaganda, a creed against social upheaval that simultaneously implies primitive cultures need to adopt Western advancements.

Throughout the film, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is chastised for utilizing ingenuity to accomplish tasks because "it's not the wolf way" to use such tricks. Seeing the inherent benefits of what Mowgli does, Baloo (Bill Murray) reacts by saying "who cares?" And that's definitely the viewpoint this version hammers home. It follows the "you do you" ideology, suggesting that differences are to be celebrated and that nobody has to fit into predetermined boxes.
It's crazy scary how much of Christopher Walken's actual face the mo-cap
people transferred to King Louie.

From a plot perspective, the most interesting thing this version does occurs at the end. In the original text, Mowgli uses fire to best Shere Khan, achieving supremacy over the animal kingdom by embracing civilization. This results in him being forced to leave the jungle and be with man where he never really fits in anyway. As a result, he becomes a being with no nation.

That's far more tragic than the animated film many of us are most familiar with. In that version, the fire doesn't distance Mowgli from his friends, but he does make the decision to embrace humanity and civilization anyway, because it's what is best for him. In other words, he steps into the predetermined box he belongs in.

Here, Mowgli definitely learns to appreciate his position as man, but, ever the noble savage, he avoids distancing himself from the animals by rejecting fire and avoiding the corruption that comes with civilization. As what is essentially a mouthpiece for Kipling's original vision, Shere Khan (Idris Elba) has spent the entire movie warning against that corruption, and, yet, when Mowgli throws man's red flower away and proves him wrong, he says it's the stupidest thing the mancub could've done. Neither Khan nor Kipling understand the outside the box thinking.

There is so much going on here thematically, that it's hard to believe this is a kids movie. For instance, some could argue that Shere Khan functions as a stand-in for current isolationist politicians that prey on fears related to immigration and race. Others might see allusions to gun control or technology run amok in Mowgli's decision to reject fire and the power and adjoining distance that come with it.

That being said, this isn't some heady experience. Like the animated film, this new version is a ton of fun, and it even offers it's own renditions of "Bear Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You." The vocal performances of both Murray (soulful conman) and Elba (seriously terrifying) are the undeniable highlights of the voice cast, but Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken and Scarlett Johansson do strong work as Bagheera, King Louie, and Kaa. I particularly appreciate how Walken's interpretation of King Louie as a sort of mob heavy sidesteps the distracting racial controversy surrounding the animated version of the character.

The effects in this thing are ridiculously good most of the time, and this is probably the best use of this technology since Life of Pi (reviewed here) or Avatar. However, there are moments where the cracks show, which are extra noticeable since the other moments around those moments have been so good. Fortunately, Sethi, the one real thing on screen, is up to the task of carrying the movie. His authenticity goes a long way toward selling this whole endeavor as a family experience fully worthy of your time. A-

Fun In Parts, "Suicide Squad" Is Still Spoiled By the Same Old Wanky D/C Plotting and Characterization

Will Smith and Margot Robbie display good chemistry in their second 
film together.

Like several of its main characters, Suicide Squad suffers from some sort of personality disorder. At times, it feels fresh, vibrant, and kinetic, operating with the same type of tongue-in-cheek mania that defined Deadpool. But unlike that incredibly successful Marvel adaptation, this D/C Comics joint fouls up many of the basics of superhero 101. The main bad guy sucks of course (that’s usually the way it goes), and the climax involves the same tired race to stop some doohickey from destroying the world (ditto). But worse than the that, the fights aren’t very dynamic, the logic of the whole thing is a mess, and, the characterization is problematic at best. As a result, the film plays a lot like The Losers, another mediocre team-up film from D/C that basically nobody remembers.

However, while The Losers was a totally innocuous property, Suicide Squad features small roles for Batman and Joker, two of the most popular comic book characters on the planet, and thus it can be sold as a major event to fans. As such, it simultaneously reaps the benefit of a built-in audience and gets crushed under the weight of expectations.

When I say small roles, I'm not kidding. Batman (Ben Affleck) and Flash (Ezra Miller) are inserted into short sequences solely to provide set-up for our antiheros. Joker (Jared Leto) has more to do, but not much -- he's really nothing more than tangential chaos on the margins of the main story. He's an interesting tertiary baddie, but he basically rates less on the importance scale than Yondu did in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Instead, the primary focus of the film is on the titular suicide squad, or rather it's supposed to be. The idea here is that ruthless government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has implanted explosive devices into a gallery of gifted villains, with the aims of forcing them to do the nation's dirty work. It's a familiar concept, but also a good one. Unfortunately, only half the team gets any semblance of development, while the rest serve as little more than set-dressing.

This is comically evident during a finale in which the villain attempts to neutralize our heroes by promising to fulfill their deepest desires. Conflicted mercenary and expert marksman Deadshot (Will Smith), Joker's crazy mol Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), fire-wielding El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the soldier in charge of all these wackos, all have visions of their desires, but the film doesn't even bother investing the time in the other members of the team, including Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and martial arts expert Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a character so extraneous that she doesn't even get an introduction in the opening montage.

Not that it would've meant much. In his introduction, Captain Boomerang is shown to be a shit-bag who turns on his accomplices at the first opportunity, and yet, with no development whatsoever, the script has him go all Han Solo/Jack Sparrow in the end. A similar moment occurs with El Diablo, who is far better realized but still doesn't earn his departing line about the team being his new family. Excepting the bonds Deadshot independently forms with Harley and Flag, none of this camaraderie is earned in even a kinda-sorta way. Consider how much less credible these people feel as a team than the characters of Guardians or The Avengers do.

This all sounds super negative, but the film is a mostly enjoyable watch. It's stylish, has a lively soundtrack and some game performances. Smith and Kinnaman are fine anchors, and although he isn't given the room to deliver an iconic take like his forbearers, Leto is interesting as a thug Joker. Robbie and Davis are the standouts, suggesting distinct shades of villainy and vulnerability, which is a pretty cool thing to say when talking about such a dude-heavy movie and genre. As poorly as the film serves the rest of its cast, it serves these characters pretty well, which is a valuable thing since they are the five most important ones. Still, I wish the second tier characters had been afforded the same level of thought that Marvel affords the likes of Scarlett Witch, Vision or Falcon.

But, of course they weren't, because this isn't Marvel, it's D/C. Like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, this feels like a cool concept sunk by poor characterization and screwy plotting. Of chief concern with that last point -- why the hell is Waller even bothering to utilize such potential security threats when she has access to information that could lead her to more heroic accomplices like Batman, Flash and Aquaman (Jason Mamoa)? I'm going to assume it has something to do with a sadistic impulse to control powerful beings, but, once again, that means the D/C Universe is lazily asking me to just assume character beats it's not actually developing (as they did with Lex in Dawn of Justice). Not exactly the kind of thing I'm thinking about when I hope for consistency in such a cinematic universe. C+