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Movie review: Fangs and fur fly in visually dazzling but intense 'Jungle Book' remake

A scene from “The Jungle Book” (Walt Disney Studios)
A scene from “The Jungle Book” (Walt Disney Studios) TNS

Parents need to know that "The Jungle Book" is a live-action/computer-generated imagery update of Rudyard Kipling's classic book of short stories that has many scary/intense scenes involving menacing wild animals. With its blend of live-action and photo-realistic computer-generated effects, this action-packed adventure - which was inspired by Disney's 1967 animated musical and has an all-star voice cast that includes Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken, and Scarlett Johansson - tells the story of young Mowgli (Neel Sethi), the orphaned "man cub" raised as a wolf and hated by the jungle's most vicious predator, tiger Shere Khan. There are several jump-worthy, intense moments (including one sudden and particularly sad death and several vicious animal fight sequences involving fangs, fur, claws, snarls, and roars) that are very likely to scare younger viewers (especially when seen in 3-D). Kids who are familiar with the story and know the animals they're seeing aren't real will probably be fine, but preschoolers and younger elementary-aged kids who have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality may not be able to handle Mowgli's frequent peril. All of that said, on the definite upside, the movie is gorgeous, and there are clear, strong messages about the importance of courage, teamwork, family (especially the non-traditional kind), and friendship.

WHAT'S THE STORY

Based on Rudyard Kipling's tales, "The Jungle Book" follows young "man cub" Mowgli, the only human co-existing with animals in the jungle. Found by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) Mowgli (Neel Sethi) was raised by wolf alpha male Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), his mate Raksha (Lupita Nyongo), who considers him one of her own cubs, and the rest of their pack. But when Mowgli draws attention to himself while all the animals gather during a drought-provoked truce to drink water, Shere Khan (Idris Elba) proclaims his intention to kill Mowgli before he has the chance to become a man and endanger the jungle like all humans do. The pack tries to protect Mowgli, but the boy decides he'll save his lupine family by allowing Bagheera to return him to the world of men. On the journey to the human village, Mowgli ends up dealing with various predators and befriends a new pal, honey-obsessed bear Baloo (Bill Murray). Meanwhile, Shere Khan violently punishes the pack for not turning over Mowgli and lies in wait for Mowgli to return so he can kill the boy who doesn't belong in the jungle.

IS IT ANY GOOD?

Visually stunning and expertly acted, this retelling of a classic pays tribute to the original adventure while erasing the insensitivity of parts of Disney's '60s version. Sethi is a compelling young lead, making viewers really care about a boy who has only known the jungle and doesn't understand why he's being hunted. Elba is pitch perfect as the villainous Shere Khan, who in a misguided way makes sense - man does cause destruction in the jungle - but is so blinded by vengeance that he can't be made to see that Mowgli truly loves the jungle. All of the supporting actors are strong as their animal counterparts, and (with the exception of Murray and Christopher Walken, whose voices are too iconic to forget who they are) they don't come off as mere A-list cameos. With her husky purr, Scarlett Johansson is very well cast as giant python Kaa, who hypnotizes Mowgli with the tale of the boy's own origins.

There are only a few musical numbers, all of which are rearranged from the original: Kaa's transfixing "Trust in Me" (which really doesn't show up until the credits), Baloo's "Bare Necessities," and "I Wanna Be Like You," which Walken sings as the ambitious Gigantopithecus (an extinct giant orangutan) King Louie. That character's portrayal was problematic in the original Disney film, prompting criticism for being racist, and it's wonderful that director Jon Favreau's interpretation of the story isn't culturally insensitive (just scary - Louie is huge!). The pacing can be leisurely, but there are also plenty of heart-stopping thrills and action sequences to keep audiences riveted - and, in a few cases, jumping out of their seats.

RATING AND CONTENT

Recommended for ages 9 and older

Quality: 4 out of 5

Positive messages: 4 out of 5

Positive role models: 3 out of 5

Violence: 4 out of 5

Sex: 0 out of 5

Language: 0 out of 5

Drinking, drugs, and smoking: 0 out of 5

Consumerism: 2 out of 5 (Are products/advertisements embedded? Is the title part of a broader marketing initiative/empire? Is the intent to sell things to kids?)

MOVIE DETAILS

Theatrical release date: April 15, 2016

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Neel Sethi

Director: Jon Favreau

Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Genre: Family and kids

Run time: 105 minutes

MPAA rating: PG

MPAA explanation: Some sequences of scary action and peril

Awards/Honors: Common Sense Seal

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Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org.

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