'The Jungle Book'
Disney’s recent trend of digging into its vaults and remaking its animated classics in live action has mostly been a frustrating endeavor. Movies like ‘Maleficent’ and ‘Cinderella’ felt forced and woefully inferior to their predecessors. The prospect of a live action ‘Jungle Book’ seemed particularly dire. Not only does the 1967 animated version hold up just fine to contemporary eyes, but the property itself has already been adapted and sequelized to death, with a disappointing live action version having stunk up cinema screens in the 1990s.
Leave it to the perpetually underappreciated Jon Favreau to deliver a new edition of ‘The Jungle Book’ filled with actual vision, wonderment, humor, excitement and even the unexpected in a tale told too many times. This is beautiful blockbuster filmmaking that justifies Disney’s “In with the Old” revival model. If the studio can pair of few more old properties with filmmakers who care, these stories might actually be worth telling again.
Favreau’s edition of ‘The Jungle Book’ is layered with homages to the layabout humor the animation team brought to the Disney classic, but is also laced with the darkness and foreboding adventure from Rudyard Kipling’s original tale. The narrative is familiar and as episodic as always. First-time actor Neel Sethi (picked out of thousands of candidates) stars as Mowgli, a little boy in red underoos who was raised by wolves (in this case, specifically a loving wolf mama voiced by Lupita Nyong’o). Ben Kingsley’s panther Bageera watches over the human cub and insists that he leave the pack for the human world when the human-hating tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) demands blood. Thus begins an adventure through the jungle, and a parable about growing up, with Mowgli bumping into all the iconic ‘Jungle Book’ characters you remember and an inevitable big battle to wrap things up.
The first thing that must be noted about this ‘Jungle Book’ is how stunningly beautiful it is. I’m not sure how it was produced, but I assume it was mostly a green-screen CGI festival. For once, those pixel effects cause genuine wonder. There’s something magical about the combination of photo-realistic and anatomically correct animals with human speech (especially with actors this perfectly cast). They move with real weight and express true character. Every hair and feather moves with impeccable detail and the jungle surroundings never cease to amaze. The ways Favreau and his genius cinematographer Bill Pope (‘The Matrix’) shoot, frame and light it all also adds to the magic. Favreau has always been fairly unapologetic about how he borrows from the Spielberg playbook to visually construct a narrative, but here the director really captures that old-timey Spielberg magic. Every character and setting is shot to provide maximum impact – not in a show-offy way, more in a manner suited to visceral storytelling and awe. This digital jungle feels alive, fun, dangerous and menacing. It’s gorgeous to behold on the big screen and even features some wonderfully deep and immersive use of 3D.
Of course, Favreau was an actor’s director long before he became a blockbuster wizard. So expect every character and performer to leave a mark. Scarlett Johansson breathily slithers as the snake Kaa, Ben Kingsley classes up the joint as Bagheera, and Lupita Nyong’o provides the heart. Everyone’s good, but three roles particularly stand out thanks to perfect casting. Bill Murray obviously kills it as Baloo, especially when neither he nor Favreau can resist slipping in “The Bare Necessities” to their non-musical. Christopher Walken also gets in a few lyrics of “I Want to Be Like You” as King Louie, but mostly plays the character as a creepy mafia don in a manner that almost defies explanation but somehow works perfectly. Idris Elba likely casts the biggest shadow over the film as Shere Khan. He’s a frightening force that Favreau never holds back. The film may well frighten children, but in that healthy way that great children’s art can. Despite the astounding digital wizardry creating the world, Favreau’s pitch perfect casting and carefully controlled performances bring the characters to life beautifully. At the center of it all is Neel Sethi, who occasionally struggles with the pressure of carrying a green-screen blockbuster, but for the most part holds together the massive production as the only purely human element.
There’s not really much to complain about in Jon Favreau’s version of ‘The Jungle Book’. The director had a distinct vision that was both playfully adventurous and darkly exciting. It’s a riveting ride that somehow makes an old tale feel fresh and vital. Admittedly, the episodic story can feel a bit formless and the message is somewhat unclear despite touching upon a number of troubling and intriguing themes. It’s not a perfect film, but it doesn’t pretend to be and nails its very specific ambitions perfectly.
Favreau has managed to revive ‘The Jungle Book’ and provide a massive CGI blockbuster with the type of wonderment and life that isn’t often possible in such pixel-heavy productions. It’s a magical bit of entertainment that will hopefully extend to audiences beyond the matinee family crowd. This thing just works, and shows that even the crassest of commercial studio projects can offer enthralling filmmaking. Granted, I may have stumbled in with low expectations, but I also can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with this movie if they’re willing to watch something titled ‘The Jungle Book’. At a certain point, it’s going to be hard to consider Jon Favreau as an eccentric outsider in the blockbuster world. He’s getting too good at mounting these massive productions. After this, ‘Iron Man’, ‘Elf’ and ‘Made’, it’s probably time to simply consider him great filmmaker without qualifications (even if that means he’ll likely never make another season of ‘Dinner for Five’, which breaks my li’l heart).