Director Jon Favreau continues Disney’s recent tradition of live-action remakes of their animated classics with The Jungle Book. Is the film a winner or should it be sealed away forever in the Disney Vault?
The Jungle Book focuses on Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a “man-cub” who was found as a baby by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and raised by wolves. As the boy grows, Bagheera teaches him the ways of the jungle, imploring the boy to leave behind his human “tricks” he uses to get by—i.e. fashioning tools and general ingenuity. Eventually, the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), warns about the dangers of humans and how he wants Mowgli turned over to him. Both the wolves and Bagheera know what that means, so the panther elects to escort Mowgli to the man settlement on the edge of the jungle. Mowgli’s adopted mother, Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) is reluctant to let her child go, but her mate, Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), knows this must be the course of action. So, Bagheera takes Mowgli away, but they are ambushed by Shere Khan and separated. This leads Mowgli on an adventure through the jungle where he meets other animals such as the hypnotic snake, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the loveable and carefree bear, Baloo (Bill Murray), and the scheming ape, King Louie (Christopher Walken). All of it ultimately leads up to a final showdown with Shere Khan, where Mowgli will have to use all of his wits and “tricks” to survive.
One thing that cannot be denied about The Jungle Book is that it is a visually spectacular film. This is due to the fact that aside from Sethi, everything else is computer generated. The environments and the animals are all fake, which is a testament to the talented computer artists employed on the film because everything looks as real as can be. It’s incredible. There were a few moments where I could tell Sethi was acting against a green screen, but it only happened occasionally throughout the film. For the most part, the joining of the human actor with the computer-generated environments was seamless. I also felt there was a little too much shaky cam, especially when Mowgli was racing through the jungle. I’m not a huge fan of shaky cam. I thought it was inspired when Paul Greengrass employed it in The Bourne Supremacy, but then everyone felt they had to use it and it’s become an obnoxious part of cinema these days. Also, while I mostly liked the story, some parts of it didn’t ring true to me. Granted, this is a tale for children, so it’s easier to overlook, but I didn’t completely buy Shere Khan’s motivation. Yes, he had been hurt by humans, but if the only human in the jungle leaves the jungle, what’s the problem? He felt to me as evil for evil’s sake. Again, a small quibble, but it kept me from totally loving the film. However, I did like how Favreau recreated some of the actual stills from the 1967 animated version.
The voice cast is absolutely fantastic here. Each actor is perfectly cast in his or her role. Even Johansson, who I wasn’t completely sold on when I heard her in the trailer, delivers in her performance. For me, the standouts are, of course, Kingsley, Murray, Elba and Walken. Murray is pretty much as perfect casting as you can get for Baloo in this day and age and with Kingsley and Walken, you can see their acting styles shine through the digital characters. Elba is perfectly sinister as Shere Khan. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he scared any children who have seen the film. I also wasn’t put off by the fact that the animals talk. I thought it would be strange, but it works. Of course, Neel Sethi has to be praised to no end. This kid is great in this film and to know that he was basically acting and reacting to nothing is all the more incredible. Sometimes on green screen films, you get performances like the majority of performances in the Star Wars Prequels—Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid excluded, of course—and others, you get fantastic performances like from Sethi in The Jungle Book. There were several moments where I was left wondering, “How did they do that?” So, if you’re worried about another “Mannequin Skywalker,” fear not.
Overall, The Jungle Book may have a fairly simple story, but I enjoyed it immensely. Visually, it is absolutely stunning and has to be seen to be believed. Definitely check it out at a theater near you before Captain America comes along and steals all the money.