The Jungle Book (2016)

Released: April 15, 2016. Directed by: Jon Favreau. Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley. Runtime: 1hr, 45 min.

Director Jon Favreau brings his vision of Rudyard Kipling’s classic story of The Jungle Book to the big screen – telling the story with fantastic visuals and a stellar cast.

It’s a coming-of-age tale about Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a man-cub finding his place in his world with animals in the Indian jungle. In fact, Mowgli is one of the film’s only live-action actors with any substantial contribution to the story.

Seethi is given a high task to carry the film as the only live-action actor. His performance is remarkable, capturing the bravery and charming curiosity of Mowgli, as well as his inventive personality.

He’s the heart of the film and he shows a great maturity as the character. It feels like he’s been performing for years – but this is his first theatrical film, his only prior experience was in a short film called Diwali.

While Seethi is virtually the only live-action actor on display in the core cast – the world between the human Mowgli and the motion-captured, computer-generated animals blend together so seamlessly, it feels like he’s truly interacting with real animals.

The visual effects are flawless and so is the attention to detail in how the animals are rendered. It’s really as great as Life of Pi in terms of creating realistic, visually striking animals. The landscape portrayed is vivid and adds to the film all around. The way the actors capture animals’ behaviour and movements adds a heightened realism.

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Neel Sethi in The Jungle Book (Source)

The voice performances for the classic characters are also great. Bill Murray encapsulates Baloo – his laziness is relatable and he’s a fun character.

Ben Kingsley portrays Bagheer, the panther who found Mowgli as an infant in the jungle. He’s also tasked with bringing him to safety to return to his own kind when he is threatened by Shere Khan, the fearsome Bengal tiger. Idris Elba is menacing as the primary villain and doesn’t like Mowgli in the jungle because he is a human and doesn’t trust them. A human gave Shere Khan his scars. This adds a layer to Mowgli, who at times has to question if he could be destructive like that, too.

Also notable is the presence of Christopher Walken as King Louie. He’s changed from an orangutan to a gigantopithecus, to make it native to India. It also gives the scenes with Louie a much grander feel and breathtaking scale because he is so hulking. He’s actually scary here, in a refreshing turn from the original.

His rendition of the original Disney’s “I Wanna Be Like You” serves as one of the feature’s many high points.

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Neel Sethi as Mowgli and Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) in The Jungle Book. (Source)

Murray also sings “Bear Necessities” and Scarlett Johansson as Kaa sings “Trust In Me” through the end credits. That’s it for the songs used from the 1967 animated musical.

Jon Favreau chose to tell the story of how Mowgli got on his own when Kaa (Johansson) was hypnotizing Mowgli, instead of having her sing the song. The slithering character is seen in only one scene – but she’s memorably chilling.

The choice to cast Johansson and gender-swap the character was to done to add another female to the cast, where the only other primary female cast member is Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha.

It is one of the film’s only disappointing aspects that Kaa only has a small role, almost a cameo – as the more utilized “red flower,” fire to the animals, is more utilized as a villain here. The animated Disney flick basically only mentioned “red flower” in passing, so Favreau was more faithful to Kipling’s use of the element.

The way the story is structured is strong and the narrative is so engaging and entertaining. It also handles the iconic characters so, so well. This adaptation was penned by Justin Marks, who shows a great adapting ability. His two other prior screenwriting credits were a television movie (Rewind) and a video game adaptation (Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li).

It might not have songs at every turn, but it handles its own very well as a film with a few violent moments. The third act is a great finale, and the film maintains a compelling pace – peppering comedy, drama and stunning action set pieces throughout. Some of the action even kept me on the edge of my seat at times.

Favreau perfectly finds a difficult balance of capturing the Disney magic, as well as making a mature adaptation that is unique and memorable. I think parents will be bugging their kids to see it so they have an excuse to watch it. And then watch it again. It’s truly great.

Score: 100/100

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The Witch (2016)

 

Released: February 19, 2016. Director: Robert Eggers. Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Inseson, Kate Dickie. Runtime: 1hr 33 min.

Filmed in the small Ontario town of Mattawa, The Witch is an astounding venture into psychological horror from feature debut director Robert Eggers.

The film’s 1630’s New England setting is a perfect fit for the compelling narrative, inspired by America’s first witch hysteria – where dialogue is taken from diaries and folk tales of the time, which capture the time’s essence.

Also capturing the realistic portrayal is the set and production design. Writer-director Eggers seemed to be an asset to the film because he has had experience with art direction, production and costume design. I assume his experience with that complemented his vision.

The time period was perfect for the artistic tale which I saw as an experiment of how fear of something new – witchcraft – can provoke situations to a boiling point.

The feature concerns a Puritan family whose beliefs clash with their plantation. They’re then banished and they move to a farmhouse bordering the eerie wilderness, which is said to be the home of a witch and other strange forces, like creepy hares and ravens.

After the family’s baby Samuel is taken, they suspect their daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) of being impure and practicing the occult, leading the mother to believe they’re plainly cursed.

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Anya Taylor-Joy in the woods in The Witch. (Source)

The matriarch Katherine (Kate Dickie) exemplifies the family’s grief and is a main source of poignancy – adding a family drama aspect. The patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) performs well, attempting to keep his family intact through hectic occurrences.

Besides strong performances, there are also compelling, realistic characters. Eggers uses them to express impurity and insanity and always real, raw emotions.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin shows promise, showing great range when facing extreme accusations from her family. She has a chilling moment when her face drops at her baby brother disappearing in a scary game of Peek-a-Boo. Harvey Scrimshaw also shines as Caleb in a defining scene.

The cast carry it well through horror and wicked family drama. It’s like a derailment into insanity, with threats of black magic. The Woods itself is a notable aspect.

To me, it’s a character in itself – like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. There’s a dread when characters enter the forest. The Witch is not frightening the way modern horror films are.

There’s no reliance on jump scares and it utilizes atmosphere and concept to terrorize audiences. My eyes widened so much, I thought my face would freeze that way.

The score is wholly unnerving. It effectively utilizes music and sound to instill fear into audiences. As the score heightens, some might wait for a jump scare – but it’s all about the discomfort it brings to the viewer, and the fear of the unknown it invites. Mark Korven’s score makes the film what it is – showing that a horror film requires great music to make it stand out.

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Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch. (Source

Eggers brings a unique vision to the witchcraft genre. His sense of storytelling and his direction of raw horror is refreshing. While this never made me cover my eyes, I’ve rarely felt so consistently unsettled through something this intense. I think I didn’t cover my eyes was because I didn’t want to miss a frame of the beautiful film.

The way cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shoots the feature stuns. Creative angles also make certain images look chilling – even if they would look simplistic in another’s hands. With Blaschke, there’s malevolence in every shot. The nighttime shots frighten, especially when we’re placed in the woods. The way the camera panned into the Woods’ belly was unnerving.

The feature’s main flaw was the way the characters talked – where their dialogue’s meaning was sometimes confusing. I’d likely have to read the screenplay to get the full essence of the themes.

This isn’t for everyone. It’s slow and rewards patient viewers. It’s a treat for genre fans. Though, it isn’t for those who define a film’s scariness through amount of jump scares.

For me, it was an astounding feature debut that immerses, and Eggers’ superbly crafted tale makes it look like he has been scaring audiences for years.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Because of Winn-Dixie (2005)

Released: February 18, 2005. Directed by: Wayne Wang. Starring: AnnaSophia Robb, Jeff Daniels, Dave Matthews. Runtime: 1hr 46 min.

One of my childhood favourites, Because of Winn-Dixie depicts the positive effect a dog can have on one’s life. In particular, it’s about India Opal (AnnaSophia Robb), a 10-year-old girl who meets a smiling, stray Picardy Shepherd in her local supermarket – the Winn-Dixie.

She names the dog Winn-Dixie in the heat of the moment – claiming the dog to be hers to save him from the pound.

Opal just moved to a small-town Naomi, Florida – a town so small, the main Church is in a convenience store. She’s struggling to fit in and also struggling to communicate with her preacher father, simply called Preacher (Jeff Daniels), who has been depressed since his wife left him when Opal was three years old.

With her trusty pooch Winn-Dixie, they meet a cast of eccentric characters across town where together, they bring joy back to Naomi.

I think the film works best because of its charm. The plot isn’t the most original, it’s basically Opal going around to the town’s characters, trying to make friends and learning lessons. It’s kind-of like a throwback to the fantasy genre of going from an amusing encounter to the next, without all the fantasy.

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Winn-Dixie and AnnaSophia Robb in Because of Winn-Dixie (Source)

The film’s frame is the aspect of the narrative of Opal coping with her mom leaving. Even after seven years, we’re catching up with her at a time where she thinks of her mom a lot because she’s so lonely. It enables poignant exchanges between Opal and the preacher – which are often heartwarming or heartbreaking, and sometimes simultaneous. The sentiment is always in the right spot, regardless.

The character also calls for AnnaSophia Robb to have a lot of maturity as a performer in her first film role on the big screen (before this she was on an episode of Nickelodeon’s Drake & Josh and the titular role in TV movie Samantha: An American Girl Holiday). Robb is completely up to the task, where she’s moving when she has to be, naturally funny and she has a good narration, to boot.

Antagonists include Mr. Alfred (B.J. Hooper), the trailer park owner of where Opal is living, who doesn’t allow pets and wants Winn-Dixie gone. He also doesn’t allow kids, but made an exception because Preacher is the… well, the preacher. I guess they couldn’t think of a better name for him.

But since it’s a family flick, there’s not much conflict – besides just coping with life. There’s also not much conflict because everyone opens up to Winn-Dixie. How can you resist that dog’s smile?

But since it’s a relatively weak-plotted family flick, there’s not a lot of conflict and everyone eventually opens up to Winn-Dixie, because how could you resist that smile?

The characters that author Kate DiCamillo created are well-sculpted, and that’s what really sets the film apart. From Dave Matthews’ singing pet shop caretaker Otis, to Eve Marie Saint’s librarian Miss Franny and Cicely Thomson’s Gloria Dump, they all have entertaining stories and are portrayed well by a talented cast.

Winn-Dixie is just a funny and enjoyable family film, notable as AnnaSophia Robb’s first film and for its emotional range, even though many of the lessons in the film are literary in scope. They just don’t feel like something that would happen naturally in real life.

This is particularly notable with the ‘littmus lozenge’ plotline and the story about its creator – a Civil War soldier who came home to his entire family dead, and made the flavour of his candy kind-of like his life: sweet and sad.

When Opal goes around giving her friends this candy, it’s cheesy but sweet. It makes people think of their sadness, like the amusing reaction of Elle Fanning’s Sweetie Pie Thomas, where she spits the lozenge out and says, “That tastes bad. That tastes like not having a dog.”

It enables moments that got a few tears out of me because a good, emotional screenplay – and it helps characters make a bit more sense.

It’s a creative, occasionally feel-good family film, especially after getting past any melodrama it might have. Most importantly: The film entertains.

3 outta 4