Lee Saves Disney's `Jungle Book' -- Actor's Performance A Rare Gem In A Too-Glitzy Tale

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XX 1/2 "The Jungle Book," with Jason Scott Lee, Cary Elwes, Sam Neill, John Cleese. Directed by Stephen Sommers, from a script by Sommers, Ronald Yanover and Mark D. Geldman. Aurora, Bay, Broadway Market, Everett 9, Factoria, Grand Cinemas Alderwood, Kent, Mountlake 9, Renton Village, SeaTac Mall. "PG" - Parental guidance advised because of violence. ------------------------------------------------------------------

Writer-director Stephen Sommers' MTV-Lite approach to the classics ruined last year's Disney remake of "Huckleberry Finn," which left out Tom Sawyer as well as much of Mark Twain's satirical spirit.

Now Sommers and Disney have taken on Rudyard Kipling, and although the results are more watchable, the movie is still a once-over-lightly affair. It also seems to have less to do with Kipling than with famous moments cribbed from other movies, among them "Wuthering Heights," Disney's "Aladdin" and even "Land of the Pharaohs."

In this version of the Mowgli stories, Mowgli is a kind of Heathcliff figure, torn away from his kindred spirit, Kitty (Lena Headey), at the age of 5, and raised in the jungle. When he is reunited with her as an adult, she's too civilized for him and becomes engaged to a back-stabbing British twit (Cary Elwes). Her obtuse father (Sam Neill) approves of the union, while a doctor pal (John Cleese) proves a better judge of character.

There are no shadings to any of these people, although both Cleese and Elwes do find ways of tweaking the material. Elwes was Mel Brooks' Robin Hood, and he gives a mischievous spin to his campier dialogue ("I have many friends in low places"). Cleese can't exist in a movie like this without lending a Monty Python-esque quality to everything he says. Unfortunately, neither actor has enough to do.

What "The Jungle Book" has going for it is Jason Scott Lee as the adult Mowgli. Whereas Elijah Wood was all wrong for "Huck Finn," Lee gives an inspired, instinctively physical performance, sniffing and foraging through the jungle, communing with the animals and making himself seem completely at home.

In an unexpectedly powerful scene, he is placed in a trophy room crowded with the mounted heads of jungle animals, and he reacts as if the corpses of his own family had been put on display.

Graceful, witty, self-possessed and confident in his knowledge of his environment, Lee never makes a false move. Even when Sommers forces him to ham it up, rolling his eyes and defying gravity like a Hong Kong martial-arts star, he gets away with it. He's almost better than he was as Bruce Lee in "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story," and that's no small achievement.

Even the child Mowgli is superbly cast: Sean Naegeli is all feral charm and slyness even before he officially becomes a feral child. Too bad the movie doesn't spend more time with him, showing how he was raised by wolves and monkeys who helped sharpen his senses. The first part of the movie seems in a mighty rush to get to the adult section of the story. We don't even know who Mowgli is before he's grown up.

That's the biggest problem with this "Jungle Book." Sommers is so busy spinning his camera, crowding the soundtrack with animal noises and piling on the cheesy visual effects that he can't stop for a reflective moment or a character-revealing touch.

Maybe that's the kind of "Jungle Book" this generation wants. But maybe it's just the one Sommers thinks it needs.