The Jungle Book: safe and sweet

Jon Favreau is a funny old chap. He started out with his buddy Vince Vaughn in Swingers (1996) then leapt up to the big time directing Iron Man (2008). He now gets the big gigs, inasmuch as The Jungle Book is a beloved children’s story by Rudyard Kipling – and also a 1967 film by Disney – so he’d better not mess it up.

Happily he doesn’t, but nor does he take any huge risks. What we get is The Lion King (sort of) done Life of Pi style. In case you’ve never heard of the story it centres on young man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi), found in the forest as a toddler by panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and raised by a pack of wolves. Then pissed off tiger Shere Khan (Iris Elba) learns of his existence and vows to kill him; as man is not meant to belong in the forest.

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So, to protect his animal friends from the wrath of Khan (when did this turn into Star Trek?), Mowgli goes on a little adventure to find the man village and be with his own kind. On the way he meets seductive snake Kaa (Scarlet Johansson) and Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) then gets captured by monkeys and meets King of the Apes Louie (Christopher Walken); the latter who wants to learn the secret of man’s fire by way of catchy song.

He then has a big showdown with the cockney tiger and it’s all very exciting. You could say what I’ve described – basically the film – is a huge spoiler but c’mon, it’s The Jungle Book. For most of us we’ve known the story for decades and Favreau doesn’t do a huge amount to play with the formula.

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Granted, he’s cast the actors well enough – Elba is menacing as Khan and Murray as Baloo is a treat and helps lightens things up – but the story is fairly straightforward and doesn’t hit you with many surprises. But maybe that’s what people want from something so nostalgic and beloved? Just don’t mess it up, it’s our childhoods.

Black lays Stark comically bare for Iron Man 3

You have to hand it to Shane Black, he’s got me torn in a good and bad way. There’s no questioning his screenplay skills, the man can write.

Past work includes Lethal Weapon 1-4, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the latter being his directorial debut. Yet I feel this latest instalment in the mandarinbenkingsleyIron Man franchise, whilst generally good, may have missed a trick or two.

Plot wise, this picks up soon after the events of Avengers. Tony is in a bad way suffering from post traumatic stress disorder; nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks and the like.

Then, to kick him whilst he’s down, The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) appears on the scene; a shadowy, terrorist-type figure, taking credit for a series of bombings, issuing death threats to the President – that sort of thing.

One bombing results in the injury of Tony’s former bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau), which is the last straw. With a ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’, Tony tells The Mandarin to pay him a visit, which he duly does with attack helicopters and missiles.

Iron-Man-3-PepperWith his house in ruins and precious iron suit out of power, Tony is stripped back to his wits and surroundings to fight back – much in the way he was in the original. Although this time in snowy Tennessee in winter, as opposed to a sandy cave in the Middle East.

Throw the suave and sophisticated Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and former flame Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) in the mix, as a pair trying to convince Stark Enterprises to buy into their ‘extremis’ product  (an experimental regenerative treatment) and you’ve got the basis for a rip-roaring film. Let’s face it, anything would be an improvement on Iron Man 2 at this point.

Happily, Black largely delivers. He’s known for sharp, witty one-liners – not only from the main cast, but minor characters too – so iron-man-3-review Stark should suit him down to the ground. I say should, as there’s a few minor quibbles that stop this being a truly great superhero flick.

First off, what’s with everything being a back-to-basics origin story these days? Batman and Bond ‘went dark’, with Thor: The Dark World and Man of Steel appearing to follow suit. Seems hero characters are all being stripped back with Hollywood saying ‘We must have an origin story or people won’t buy into it!’ Not true.

Luckily it’s not all darkness, Black is a dab hand at a quick, witty lines to lift the tone. However, to nit pick somewhat, you could argue he uses this skill a bit too much. Yes, play to your strengths, but there were times when dramatic tone was needed mayahansento build tension and Black retreated to his comfort zone with an amusing line and the moment was lost.

This was clear to see when Tony suffered from anxiety attacks frequently early on, but these were often dismissed or trivialised by other characters and the scene quickly moved on. Surely there was more mileage in exploring his mental state more thoroughly? It would have added depth to Stark’s character.

Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen was an intriguing character and got me thinking maybe she’d add depth to Stark’s journey, yet Black shied away from exploring this too. Kingsley’s Mandarin was similarly short-changed on the dramatic front. Most surprising, given the calibre of these actors the director had at his disposal.

That aside, Black more than delivers on action and humour – perfect for this character – yet perhaps falls short when it comes to dramatic depth. As a result we’re left with the funniest Iron Man to date – the extra comedy putting it on par with the original – but you’re left feeling that, instead of another gag, more substance at times would have been more refreshing.

Let’s leave you with classic Black, ‘This isn’t good cop bad cop, this is fag and New Yorker.’

[Interesting links]
Crash, bang, wallop – Shane Black action movie masterclass
Iron Man – behind the scenes

Can Disney save Star Wars?

Upon hearing the news that Disney have recently acquired Lucasfilm I asked myself this question. Good old George, the 68-year-old filmmaker sold Lucasfilm for $4.05bn (£2.5bn), my initial reaction was not exactly excitement, more tentative hope.

Lucas is more or less a pensioner and his heart went out of making these films a long time ago. In some ways I’m amazed he managed to get the latest trilogy off the ground at all. Selling to Disney at this point was perfect timing and great business sense. How many other pensioners do you know that increase their fortunes by $4bn a couple of years before they turn 70? No wonder he looks smug.

He has said he wants to pass the franchise on to a new generation of filmmakers, with episode 7 being set for release in 2015. Episodes 8 and 9 will naturally follow, completing a 9-film trilogy spanning decades. Quite a legacy.

The force is strong in this one
Some die-hard fans have been moaning that Disney without Lucas means the corporation will be butchering the beloved world Lucas has created. I think that’s unfair.

Disney has moved on in the last 10 years. It’s worth pointing out they have a savvy – albeit slightly bullish – track record of acquisitions, with Pixar in 2006 ($7.4bn), Marvel in 2009 ($4.2bn) and now Lucasfilm in 2012 ($4bn).

With Marvel and Pixar, Disney have – to their credit – allowed these studios to approach their films, characters and stories in a way that stays true to their philosophy.

For Marvel, they’ve also chosen wisely in terms of Directors: Kenneth Branagh (Thor), Jon Favreau (Iron Man), Joss Whedon (Avengers). When Disney and Pixar merged in 2006, it was explicitly laid out that Pixar would maintain its identity and creative control, allowing this has meant their philosophy of filmmaking has continued and given us films such as: Up (2009), Toy Story 3 (2010) and Brave (2012).

I see no reason why Disney won’t continue in a similar fashion with new Star Wars films. This cinematic franchise has been around a hell of a lot longer than Marvel or Pixar films, with an incredibly devoted fan base to match.

I don’t believe it. That is why you fail
Make no mistake episode 7 is going to be a massive challenge for whichever Director Disney put in charge. It will be a continuation of Luke, Leia and Han’s story, so it’s completely new territory. There has been brief – probably comical – mention of the original actors returning, but they’re all pensioners now and it’s not worth entertaining the thought.

I’m not going to start dictating the best way Disney should approach these films, I genuinely have faith they’ll treat the brand with respect – and hopefully take it back towards the look and feel of the original films.  Either way, Lucas remains a ‘consultant’ for the next trilogy, so his reign of terror is largely over. Onwards and upwards!