Mowgli (Neel Sethi) and panther friend Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) in The Jungle Book (Disney Enterprises Inc.)

Mowgli (Neel Sethi) and panther friend Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) in The Jungle Book (Disney Enterprises Inc.)

Orphan struggles to survive in mesmerizing ‘Jungle Book’

The best movie I’ve seen so far this year is about a boy who was raised by wolves. It may also be the most harrowing movie of the year to date.

Disney’s The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), who lives with the wolf pack that took him in as an infant. Though he clearly doesn’t fit in with the other “cubs,” he’s loved and protected by adopted mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and the rest of the clan. He’s also watched over by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), the stern panther who brought the orphaned child to the wolves in the first place.

Mowgli’s odd but comfortable existence is upset during a dry spell that brings the human-hating tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) to the local watering hole. Honoring the truce that’s enforced when the water level is low, Shere Khan spares the boy’s life but claims the right to kill him at a later date—or to take revenge on the rest of the wolf pack if he’s denied this privilege.

Fearing for the pack’s safety, Mowgli and Bagheera set off to find the boy’s own kind—the two-legged animals who command the dangerous force known as the “red flower” (i.e., fire). But Mowgli is quickly separated from his feline protector and has to fend for himself as he contends with runaway herds, rockslides, a devious boa constrictor (Scarlett Johansson), a monstrous ape (Christopher Walken) and a conniving sloth bear (Bill Murray).

Disney first tackled this Rudyard Kipling tale with a 1967 animated musical comedy. A couple of the original tunes survive from that version, but the tone is completely different. As light and harmless as the animated film was, that’s how dark and threatening the remake is.

Many scenes are downright scary, to the extent that parents should think carefully about their youngest children’s tolerance for sudden frights and simmering dread. There’s a brief respite following the appearance of Baloo, the honey-loving sloth bear with Murray’s distinctive drawl, but Justin Marks’s screenplay generally keeps viewers riveted and on edge.

At the same time, Bill Pope’s cinematography keeps them mesmerized with its moody and darkly gorgeous depiction of Mowgli’s jungle home. I saw the film in 3-D, which contributes to the fun, but 2-D versions should be nearly as impressive. The SFX artists who created the realistic denizens of the forest contribute to the convincing illusion.

Still, if there’s one hero in all this, it’s 12-year-old Neel Sethi as the terrified but courageous Mowgli. When you consider the fact that the actor is the only “real” thing we’re seeing—that his entire performance presumably was delivered against a green screen—you realize how awesome his achievement is.

Children mature enough for The Jungle Book will be inspired by its lessons about pluck and loyalty and broadened by its reveries on mankind’s place in the animal kingdom. Mostly, though, they and everyone else will be blown away by a survival tale that commands their attention until the very end.

Rating: 4½ stars (our of 5)

The Jungle Book, rated PG, opens Friday (April 15) at theaters nationwide.


College tale majors in testosterone and nostalgia


Director/screenwriter Richard Linklater is known for flicks that refuse to conform to any commercial mold. They include the romantic “Before” series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight) and Boyhood, the 2014 coming-of-age drama that was filmed over a period of 12 years.

But for many, his claim to cinematic immortality is 1993’s Dazed and Confused, the Texas-based tale of a drug- and alcohol-laced transition from high school to college. Such fans will obviously be eager to greet the debut of Everybody Wants Some!!, which some see as D&C’s spiritual heir.

For the rest of us, the new film may be less of an event. It has no real plot and, what’s worse, no characters we know well enough to care about. Even Jake (Blake Jenner), the freshman at the center of the action, doesn’t really gel as an individual until late in the proceedings.

Reportedly inspired by Linklater’s own experiences as a baseball player at a Texas university circa 1980, the flick follows Jake around as he settles into one of the off-campus houses set aside for the baseball team, gets to know his teammates and then proceeds to join them in a weekend of sex, drugs and drinking.

There’s fun to be had here (though obviously not as much fun as experiencing the weekend in person). Jake and the others constantly engage in a testosterone-fed barrage of insults and one-upmanship, and their clothes, cars, hairstyles and ’staches will set off waves of nostalgia for anyone who remembers the early ’80s. Also fun is the music, an era-appropriate assortment of disco, urban country, punk and early rap tunes.

For a while, the film’s good-natured spirit carries us along as Jake and the others stumble from bar to bar and party to party. Eventually, though, we begin to wish Linklater offered something more concrete to hold our attention. It finally arrives in the form of Blake’s long-delayed introduction to Beverly (Zoey Deutch), the girl he spied early on. But by then, the film is nearly over.

As much as I admire some of Linklater’s work, I’ve been bothered by the feeling that the women are treated less sympathetically than the men in his recent films. That’s certainly true here. Other than Beverly, the women are little more than eye candy waiting to be enticed into bed, the back seat of a car or, in one case, a mud-wrestling pit. That makes this less a nostalgia trip about the ’80s than it is a male fantasy of what the ’80s should have been like.

Then again, this is a male fantasy in which the men aren’t much more distinctive than the women. Despite all the time we spend with them, we never get to know Blake’s housemates beyond one or two quirks. There’s the guy who hates to lose (Tyler Hoechlin), the guy who makes bad bets (Austin Amelio), the guy with the clever come-ons (Glen Powell), etc.

Like all of Linklater’s work, Everybody Wants Some!! is stylish and unconventional. It’s just not as rewarding as his best efforts.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Everybody Wants Some!!, rated R, opens Friday (April 15) at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.


Blake Jenner, Glen Powell, Temple Baker and Forrest Vickery (from left) in Everybody Wants Some!! (photo by Van Redin/Paramount Pictures)