Sunday, May 26, 2019

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1994) (Movie Review)

       It was in 1894 that a collection of stories set in the jungles of India came about by author Rudyard Kipling. When rounded together, these stories are more commonly known as “The Jungle Book”. Over time, it’s been credited as classic literature, but its popularity remains largely through its many adaptions for film and other media. For me personally, everything started with Disney’s live action 1994 film titled “Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book”. 

This was it, all my child hood fondness for “The Jungle Book” begins with this movie. As far back as I can remember, it shares a spot along with “The Wizard of Oz” as one of my very first live action movie experiences. Thus, it’s always remained a nostalgic benchmark as the very first time I embarked on an adventure in film, and well before I discovered any of the big titles like “Raiders of the Lost Arc” and so forth. Just about every member of my family had that old VHS tape of the movie, and it just resonated with me as a classic. Truthfully, it wasn’t until years later, around the age of seven or eight that I discovered the more famous animated Jungle Book movie by Disney. No joke, whenever someone mentioned Disney’s “The Jungle Book”, I always thought they were talking about the live action 90’s film. Even more embarrassing, I didn’t even know about Rudyard Kipling’s original books until I was well into my middle-school years. What really shocked me back then was that, despite Rudyard Kipling’s name being above the title, Disney’s 1994 live action version of “The Jungle Book” has very little in common with its source material. It makes this a tricky film to discuss, as it’s certainly not a faithful adaption of a classic source material, but I still have so much love for it as a memorable family adventure film from my child hood.     

      The movie begins with a memorable tracking shot on a map of India, mixed with a triumphant musical score composed by the great Basil Poledouris. As our venture in the jungles of India begins, we meet Colonel Geoffrey Brydon played by Sam Neill, who’s in command of a settlement where a regiment of the British army is stationed. His little girl Kitty takes a liking to a small Indian boy named Mowgli, and leaves him with a bracelet from her late mother. During a vicious attack from the tiger Shere Khan, Mowgli is separated from the group, and gets lost deep in the Jungle. There, he finds himself in the care of a pack of wolves, and a black panther named Bagheera. Years later, Mowgli grows into a man, but has lost all his humanity. 

Through a series of events, he finds himself reacquainted with the human world … and more specifically with his childhood friend Kitty, who’s now a grown woman. Recognizing her mother’s bracelet, Kitty identifies him as the lost boy Mowgli and tires her best to re-educate him back to being a person. Unfortunately for Mowgli, the more he learns of the human world’s greedy and violent ways, the more he wants to return to being an animal. Into his midst comes a savage team of treasure seeking hunters lead by a British officer named Captain Boone. Using Kitty and her father as a bargaining chip, Boone forces Mowgli to lead his team on an expedition into the darkest parts of the Jungle to find an ancient lost city … and more specifically it’s hidden treasure. As you can tell by the synapses, this film plays out less like an adaption of “The Jungle Book” and feels more like “Tarzan” meets “Indiana Jones” ... but is that a bad thing, … well, it depends on how much you love the source material versus a movie experience on its own.

     The first of many strengths to the film is the cast, which is comprised of many great talents that I was being introduced to for the first time through this movie. Granted, it was through “Jurassic Park” that I became a fan of Sam Neill, but it was cool afterwards to connect him to a childhood favorite. In my view, Sam Neill was one of the decades most underrated great actors, and this movie highlights him at the prime of his carrier. Another one of my favorite actors who was in his prime was famed British comedian John Cleese in the role of Dr. Plumford. While this certainly wasn’t one of his funniest roles, his presence still adds a lot of charm and likability to the experience. Jason Scott Lee is our star in the role of Mowgli, and it’s his commitment to the part that really drives the film. It’s one of those special cases where an actor just disappears in the role, and everything he brings to the role feels genuine. His animal behavior, his curious expressions, his subtly developed human personality and the way he carries himself never once come across like an actor going through the motions. The image of him running through the jungle with the wolf pack has always stood in my mind as something iconic. I also love the visual of him leaping off a huge cliff side, with a waterfall as a backdrop.

     Now let’s talk about Lena Headey as the love interest Kitty Brydon. Obviously, I’ve come to love and respect the actress over the years for her roles in “300”, and especially her portrayal of Cersei Lannister in “Game of Thrones”, but it was through “The Jungle Book” that I had my first crush on her. 

While her character is a familiar archetype of both a damsel and a love interest, Lena Headey delivers a solid performance, and infuses the character with a mature, yet extremely lovable nature. She just radiates this natural sense of both joy and beauty whenever she’s on screen, and her chemistry with Mowgli is very genuine. The image of her on the balcony of the India palace always made me feel like she was a live action Disney Princess in a castle. The last star who likewise makes this movie so appealing is Cary Elwes as the villain Capt. William Boone. While I’m sure most people remember the actor best for his roles in “The Princess Bride” or “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”, this is the role I’ve always associated him with the most. While Cary Elwes can definitely make for a charming hero, he also makes for a very charming bad guy. It’s obviously a one-note villain who’s after both treasure and the attractive girl, but Cary Elwes carries the role with so much class, and delicious wickedness. Jason Flemyng is also very enjoyable as his clumsy first man named Wilkins, who everyone tells to hush up ... “Shut-up Wilkins”. There’s also a second villain named Buldeo, who’s familiar with the ancient city our villains seek, and is also responsible for the death of Mowgli’s father at the claws of Shere Khan during the beginning of the movie. This was actually a human character from Kipling’s stories, but he was heavily altered for this films version. 

    The cast continues to shine with all the animal’s featured in the film, and this once again adds to the appeal of the movie. Every single animal featured in this film is a professionally trained animal, and such a treat when compared to our modern movies and all their CGI animals. All those current live action remakes of “The Lion King” and “The Jungle Book” and their motion captured animals don’t even hold a candle to what this film accomplished back in 1994. Not enough people respect the acting talents of Orangutans, as the one playing King Louie is very charismatic, lol. The only animal who’s both a puppet laced with CGI elements is the snake Kaa, and he’s a serviceable effect. While Kaa isn’t in the movie for long, I still like that he’s the figurative dragon grading the treasure chamber. One little detail this movie always had over the cartoon for me was Mowgli’s wolf companion named Little Grey Brother, as he was one of my favorite animal characters. The bear Baloo is likewise very lovable, and the panther Bagheera is awesome. I should also note that the animals never speak in this version, and personally, I’ve always preferred it that way. The animals on their own convey so much that I feel voice actors would just come off as distracting.

     Without a doubt the animal with the most commanding presence of all is the Bengal Tiger named Shere Khan. Ever sense my childhood exposure to this movie, Tigers have been my all-time favorite jungle animal. Unlike most versions of “The Jungle Book”, Shere Khan isn’t a villain in this film, and instead is a neutral force of nature. He’s basically the jungles watchful guardian, and the keeper of the jungle laws. While Shere Khan dose kill Mowgli’s father in the opening, the two never become rivals, and only have one encounter at the very end of the movie. Shere Khan challenges him to see if he’s more man or animal, and in the end, Khan respects Mowgli as a creature of the jungle. While I’ve always loved the concept behind Shere Khan’s new formed respect for Mowgli, the initial stair down between the two is admittedly kind of goofy in its execution. Regardless, this is still my favorite portrayal of Shere Khan, as he brings a great deal of tension to the film without becoming a villain in the process.  

       The jungle itself is a fleshed-out character with its own magical quality and personality. It’s a tight setting, but it doesn’t come off as claustrophobic, and I always feel swept away by its distinct atmosphere. Not only are the locations and scenery gorgeous to behold, but the jungle itself feels alive with animals in every frame, and details like birds or monkeys in the foreground or background. I’m also a big fan of map paintings, and there’s such a timeless appeal to some of the map painted backdrops. 

The ruins of “Monkey City” also provide some captivating designs and beautiful hand-built sets. As my very first adventure movie, this was the film that introduced me to conventions like explorers lighting a fuse that illuminates all the temple interiors and the treasure chamber. It’s something that would be replicated in future adventure films like “National Treasure” and “The Mummy”. On that note, this movie was directed by Stephen Sommers, the same talent who directed both “The Mummy” and its sequel. He’s a natural talent bringing energy, excitement and wonder to treasure hunting adventures of this sort. For example, I love when the temple is first illuminated, as there’s fire igniting from snake statues, and the flames light up various animal pictures, which are all paired with distinct animal sounds. It doesn’t make any logical sense, and is clearly the director being artsy, but it also enriches the setting with a unique atmosphere and mood. The pacing is also really good, and manages to remain consistently engaging without being quiet as action packed or overblown with spectacle. Whenever Mowgli is developing his relations with the humans, or the group is off hunting treasure, I’m %100 drawn in. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a matter of all the right ingredient’s woven together that elevate the films simplicity into something engaging.

     I mentioned earlier the incredible opening bailed composed by Basil Poledouris, and his music is another key ingredient that carries the film. He’s the same artist who composed the music for “Conan the Barbarian”, so he’s no stranger to enriching a film with a captivating music track. Speaking of music, this film is likewise responsible for introducing me to classic ballroom titles like Johann Strauss Jr’s “Wine, Woman and Song”, “Emperor Waltz”, and “Blue Danube”. I’m sure we’ve all heard his music in one form or another, and for me, I’ll always think of “The Jungle Book” whenever I hear one of his immortal tracks. The Ball room sequence is another perfectly executed scene that varies through different shifting moods. It starts a little goofy with Mowgli trying to fit in, which segues into a beautiful dance between our two lovers, but then things take a turn when Boone announces engagement plans, which lights a fire under Mowgli. Caught off guard, Mowgli is made a public fool, leading into an emotional breakdown in which he refuses to be called a man.

     My absolute favorite individual scene is another one of the more serious and frightening moments, in which Boone takes Mowgli on a tur though his section of the palace. The conversation starts off calm and well mannered, but things gradually get more heated as Mowgli discovers what kind of sick and malevolent man the Captain really is. He then turns left into Boone’s office, which is full of taxidermy animals. 

This triggers a mental vision in Mowgli, as he hears the gunshots and horrific animal cries coming from the lifeless creatures surrounding him. This scene was shot with a great deal of intensity, tight edits, and a relentlessly haunting overtone. It’s an eerie, yet very powerful. The scene would later be spoofed by Jim Carry in the comedy “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls”. Another emotional highlight is when the bear Balue makes a noble sacrifice, and takes several bullets in order to protect Mowgli. This scene was always hard to watch as a kid, but I love the way it was shot, especially when Mowgli goes running off in grief, and the color pallet turns Black and White. Now I will admit that for every dramatic highlight, there’s also something really cartoony that doesn’t seem to fit with the tone of the film. One little off-putting detail takes place during a chase scene, in which a man snake charms a rope to become a ladder, and subsequently providing our hero a convenient means of escape. Thankfully there aren’t too many moments like that, but when they happen, it tends to break the mood. 

      Once we get to the third act, this PG Disney family film takes quiet the dark turn as every one of the villains is killed off in memorable and horrific way. 
Boon is eaten by Kaa, poor dumb Wilkins gets shredded by Shere Khan, the one henchman falls off a cliff side, and the death of the villain Buldeo is like something from out of a “SAW” movie. As he’s chasing Mowgli through the temple, he gets sealed in a small room that slowly fills with salt. That scared the hell out of me as a kid knowing that he was in for a slow death, and with absolutely no chance of escaping the sealed-up room. 

The most terrifying death of all was the cruel jailer, who after giving Mowgli all kinds of abuse meets his demise by sinking in quicksand. It’s another slow burning death scene as he tries desperately to get out, his comrades fail to pull him out, and then he just sinks into the disgusting black muck. I really don’t know if I should write the violence and darker moments off as a positive or a negative. It’s not material I’d typically want to show kids, but at the same time, the film leaves a lasting impression on us young viewers, and it makes the movie all the more fun to look back on and say “wow, can you believe we were exposed to this as kids, and from Disney … it’s kind of amazing”. Personally, I never felt that the dark or violent moments went too far, as I remember watching this and pulling though it fine. One thing that unfortunately doesn’t hold up very well are the action sequences. The film has great set up, but clumsy fight choreography and awkward staging leaves much to be desired, which is inexcusable sense this movie has a martial arts legend like Jason Scott Lee in the staring role. For example, there’s a scene in which Mowgli fights this big henchman, but it’s awkwardly staged, and looks like two people trying to hug each other to death. The final show down between Mowgli and Boon is another perfect example of great fighting potential that comes off as cringe and goofy in execution.    

      So, in the end, dose Disney’s very first live action remake of “The Jungle Book” really hold up? Well, it certainly does for me, but that’s also a very personal opinion brought on by my childhood nostalgia of growing up with it. 

I know it doesn’t work as a faithful adaption of a great literary source material, but then again, several other note-worth movies have strayed from their respected books, and turned out classics in their own right. Look at both “The Shining” and “The Wizard of Oz” as perfect examples, as neither are judged as faithful adaptions, and are more commonly viewed as just great movies in their own right. 1994’s “The Jungle Book” in my view is a terrific family adventure film. It has just enough of an edge to appeal to adults, but just enough warmth, charm and excitement to appeal to kids. I also feel that with all the different versions of “The Jungle Book”, this film offers a refreshing and unique alternative. While the movie obviously has its cheesy moments, and dated qualities, the majority of it still wins me over. I love seeing real animals performing on film, I adore the cast, the scenery is gorgeous, and I always feel submersed in the films rich jungle setting. More to the point, I feel this film works as a good bridge for kids to transition from kid friendly fun to more adult adventures. I loved this movie back when I was a child, I still love it just as much as an adult. It’s certainly not for everyone, but I hope more people re-discover it over time.

I give Disney’s live action remake of “The Jungle Book” 4 ½ stars out of 5.      

Top 10 King Kong Battles

May 2019 will mark the premier of “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”, which means we’re only one year away before we finally see a modern-day version of “Godzilla vs King Kong”. With the new Godzilla movie holding us over until then, I though I should shine some light on King Kong, and highlight some of his most iconic theatrical moments. While Godzilla is famous for his giant monster battles, Kong has less, but there still just as noteworthy. So, for this post, I’ll be counting down my top 10 personal favorite King Kong battles, but only the ones in which he fights another giant monster.

#10 King Kong versus The Plesiosaur from 1933 “King Kong” 

While getting to know the girl Ann Darrow, Kong proves quite irresponsible when it comes to letting unwanted guests into his house. Into their mists slithers an aquatic beast known as a Plesiosaur, who puts a strangle hold on Kong. While this battle isn’t on par with the lengthy creature brawls in later films, it’s still something to saver, as it's a memorable showdown with the first original King Kong. All throughout the film, we see Kong battling creatures in an effort to keep Ann safe, and this was a short, yet stand out moment.

#9 King Kong versus Gorosaurus from “King Kong Escapes” 

While he may seem like just another T-Rex on the surface, Gorosaurus was actually a regular player in Japans giant monster series, and would even appear in the 1969 Godzilla movie titled “Destroy all Monsters”. Heck, that movie even features stock footage of Gorosaurus, which is lifted straight from “King Kong Escapes”. The battle between Kong and Gorosaurus is a delightfully cheesy rubber suited monster fight, and its actually kind of a treat to see Kong battle something else from the Godzilla franchise. Gorosaurus’s signature move is a drop-kick, which he repeatedly uses on Kong. There are also some amusing winks to the original “King Kong” movie, like a shot with the Blond girl in a tree branch, while the monsters battle in the background. Also, just like the original T-Rex, Gorosaurus gets his jaw snapped open, but this is a G rated death by comparison, as it features foam coming out the mouth as opposed to blood.

#8 King Kong versus the Giant Snake from 1976 “King Kong” 

While we don’t have any exciting Dinosaur encounters in this 70’s remake, it’ll have to compensate with another creature that slithers. It’s yet another goofy action highlight, and it accurses when Kong rescues the girl from a giant snake, which is a cheap looking puppet. While it’s an admittedly silly fight, it does contain some surprisingly violent creature action. Kong’s finishing move of ripping the snakes jaw open is about as bloody awesome as they get, and it’s just enough to make this brawl worthy of recognition on my countdown.

#7 Baby Kong vs the Giant Cave Bear from “Son of Kong” 

The 1933 sequel “Son of Kong” remains the only film in the franchise that doesn’t feature Kong himself, so his son will just have to fill in. All through the movie, we see the young Baby Kong battling various monsters in an effort to protect a group of treasure hunters. Some of the newer monsters in this film include a sea serpent, and several others. The most memorable monster battle of all is when Baby Kong finds himself clashing with a giant cave bear. Unlike the other reptiles, dinosaurs, and squids that Kong has battled, this bear is much closer to the regular animal world but enlarged, just like Kong himself. The two cover a lot of ground for a stop motion fight, and it’s a cool contrast of razor sharp claws against strong fists.

#6 King Kong versus the Triple T-Rex pack from 2005 “King Kong” 

This is one of the more modern Kong Battles, and would probably rank a little higher on most other lists of this sort. Personally, I have some issues reserved for this brawl. Echoing back to Kong’s original showdown with the T-Rex, the mighty ape now finds himself brawling with three T-Rex’s at once. It’s a case of too much going on, when the original was satisfying enough with just one T-Rex battling Kong. The effects and designs of these three T-Rex’s are also really off-putting. I’ll always look back fondly on the T-Rex from “Jurassic Park” as one of the greatest movie monsters of all time, as it genuinely felt like a real monster with size, wait and a frightening presence. The three in this film just look and feel like cartoon monsters, and their desire to eat Ann is just plain ridiculous. It actually gets to a point when a T-Rex is dangling in the air on some vines, but it’s still determined to get Ann in its mouth, like it’s the only possible meal it could ever get. With all that said, this is obviously still a noteworthy and mostly exciting creature battle from Kong’s motion picture line-up.

#5 King Kong versus the Giant Octopus from “King Kong vs Godzilla” 

This actually marked the very first King Kong movie I ever saw in my lifetime, and thus, this was the very first Kong battle I ever saw. As such Kong’s showdown with the Giant octopus may not seem like anything special on the surface, but it’s always been a memorable highlight for me. The giant Octopus was brought to life through a combination of stop-motion, and a real Octopus. Specking personally, I’ve always loved the concept of Giant Squid monsters, and seeing this thing rising from the depths to attack the island villagers evokes a sense of excitement that’s on par with the Giant Squid from “20 000 Leagues Under the Sea”. The creature effects during this attack would later be an influence for the animators of The Kraken in the 2006 film “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest”. The ensuing battle between Kong and the Octopus is yet another cheesy highlight and sets the tone for what we’ll be getting through the film.

#4 King Kong versus Robot Kong from “King Kong Escapes” 

To date, Robot Kong is the only original giant antagonist to battle Kong, and he even pre-dates Godzilla’s more famous evil robot counterpart Mechagodzilla by a good six years. Having a giant rival that mired Kong’s appearance was actually a credible idea, and I like how it’s utilized in the film. When Kong sees his robot duplicate for the first time, it sees the thing as one of his own, and even tries to be friends ... which obviously doesn’t work out. Just as the day seems won, Robot Kong appears on the scene, kidnaps the girl and forces Kong into a final battle to the death. While this rubber suited monster brawl isn’t nearly as amusing as Kong’s original battle with Godzilla, it’s still solid campy fun, and I really like the duality of both the new and familiar on display during this climax. We once again have a finale set on a tall tower, with a blond girl taken away by Kong, but this time we also have Kong coming to the girl’s rescue. It’s probably the only Kong sequel to feature a climax with two Kong’s battling over a girl while on top of a tall building.

#3 King Kong versus the Alfa Skull Crawler from “Kong: Skull Island” 

The Skull Crawlers are some of the most lethal and unique creatures to appear in the Kong franchise, and their giant alfa is a worthy foe for the mighty ape. The final showdown between Kong and the lead Skull Crawler is really fun to watch, and features all the cool stuff a giant monster fight has to offer. There’s an awesome un-edited shot following Kong as he fights the creature, while the camera orbits the action, which got me hyped. Also, seeing Kong launch a rusted boat propeller into the monsters back was great. It’s also a lengthy battle, and it concludes with the most epic creature death of the whole franchise. Kong puts his entire fist in the creature’s mouth, and rips his tongue right out. This might just be the most genuinely exciting and fun Kong vs monster fight of the whole series … but that doesn’t quite make it classic like the next two.

#2 King Kong versus the T-Rex from the original 1933 “King Kong” 

Back in 1925, there was a silent picture titled “The Lost World”, which featured stop motion Dinosaurs that were created by one Willis O’ Brien. The creature effects in that film were extraordinary accomplishments, but it’s here in “King Kong” where Willis O’ Brien's creature effects really shine. Just like Kong, all the Dinosaurs featured in the film are stop-motion, and every encounter with them is down-right thrilling. My favorite scene of all is Kong’s battle with the T-Rex. This was the first truly classic monster battle ever captured on film, and it still holds up as an exciting sequence, with a memorable finishing movie of Kong breaking its jaw. It may seem tame today, but back in 1933, this battle was on par with the excitement of watching the Hulk battle Thor. Now, ever sense the very first Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton was found and assembled, it’s had a distinguished reputation as one of the most famous carnivores of all time. So, to see the legendary T-Rex back in his prime of fame, get bested by this giant ape, it really helped put the spot light on Kong as a force to be reckoned with.

#1 The East Versus the West from “King Kong vs Godzilla” 

Was there ever any doubt that taking the number one spot on my list would be the climactic showdown on the slopes of Mount Fuji between the world’s two most famous giant movie monsters. I can respect how a fight between two rubber suited monsters can come off as just plain stupid or boring to some viewers, but there is still a charm and appeal to the campy-ness of it that can entertain a certain audience. For me, I know it’s not quality entertainment, but I absolutely love it on the grounds of campy fun, and this final showdown between Godzilla and King Kong is about as goofy, yet as epic as they get. 

My favorite moment is actually at the very start of the fight, in which Kong is dropped in the mighty lizards path, he slides down the mountain slope like a kid on a bob-sled, and crashes right into Godzilla, which sends him rolling backward like a bolder. I really love seeing their distinct fighting styles on display, like Kong throwing boulders, which Godzilla reflects with his tail. The two actors in the monster suits pull off some credible stunts, although there are some amusing moments in which the two look like their trying to hug each other to death. There’s a sudden piece of stop motion added in for Godzilla to perform a drop-kick, which is great. Then there’s a hilarious establishing shot with both monsters fighting off in the distance, and it looks like a kid playing with his toy action figures. There’re also some brutal moments, like Kong getting his face smashed into a rock, and Godzilla getting a tree shoved down his throat. Now, Godzilla has the advantage that he can breathe fire, so the writers had to come up with new things for Kong to do in order to stand a chance. Thus, in this film, King Kong gains strength through lightning bolts, and can store the electricity in his fists. It’s a bit outlandish for a giant gorilla, but I’ll except it. Of course, the most iconic image of the whole fight is seeing the two monsters demolish a Pagoda that’s caught in-between them. It’s just a goofy, campy monster brawl, but it’s as classic as they get, and no other King Kong battle can top it … at least until the remake comes out next year.   

The End