The Jungle Book
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenwriter: Justin Marks
Cast: Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Neel Sethi
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
Rated PG | 106 Minutes
Release Date: April 15, 2016
There is a fine line that filmmakers walk when reimagining a classic like Disney’s The Jungle Book. The animated film, released in 1967, has a special place in the hearts of fans who enjoyed watching a boy who lived in the jungle and was raised by wolves become a man. Though there have been many iterations and adaptations, that film is probably the most recognized. Now we flash forward to 2016, nearly 50 years since the release of the film where Disney has already created a successful formula of turning those animated classics into live-action blockbusters.
The film is storytelling come to life in every sense of the word. Like a parental figure reading a story to their child. Jon Favreau (Iron Man), faithfully adapts the film for the newer generation, while still paying respect to those who loved the original. Some might consider that his vision for this surpasses the original. Others might think it succeeds in its own right. In the end, the film is nostalgically joyous and a romping good time.
The Jungle Book centers on Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young orphan boy living in the jungles of India where he is raised by Indian wolves Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). Mowgli struggles to keep up with the pack and has to resort to tricks that only he can perform. Generally, this is frowned upon considering none of the animals are capable of doing what he is able to do. When the jungles start to become barren, the pack and the general animal populace enact a water truce, where predator and prey can co-exist peacefully because thirst is more important than food.
However, ferocious tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) doesn’t take too kindly to the presence of Mowgli. Scarred by a previous encounter with man, Shere Khan threatens the very lives of the animal community if Mowgli isn’t given to him before the rains fill the peace. So, the young boy volunteers to leave the pack, with panther mentor Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) guiding him to his new home. However, the bloodthirsty tiger separates Mowgli and Bagheera from each other, and the man cub relies on the help of his new found friend, an easy-going bear named Baloo (Bill Murray), who helps Mowgli realize that he can be a part of the pack while embracing his humanistic species.
Even as a reimagined film, Favreau never loses sight of the fact that he has to tell his story while also paying homage to the original. While it would have been easy to just do a simple cover of the original animated film, the fact that this is a live-action tentpole makes this iteration exceptionally special. For one thing, Favreau can build a world unlike anyone has ever seen. The layers are so complex, the colors flourish, and there are textures to everything you see. Rocks are slippy when wet. The desert is barren and dry when there is a drought. Embers dance as fire illuminates the night. Droplets of water trickle down every fiber of a wolf’s fur. These small attentions to detail just shows the amount of passion everyone had working on this film.
It will come to a point where it will be difficult to tell what is practical and what is a digital effect. Both are woven together seamlessly by hardworking animators. The decision to add some color to a world where color wouldn’t otherwise exist was an excellent decision as this would add depth and personality to this fictional world. And therein lies another element where the audience is drawn into the mysterious world. But as bright and colorful as this jungle is, there is also a darkness where predators lie in wait, patiently waiting to strike and eat their prey. While this may provide a few scary moments for the younger audience, there are plenty of moments that will make them laugh or even give them the courage to rise above their fears.
The experience is only enhanced thanks to Sethi’s exuberant energy that he puts into his performance. From jumping and climbing, the young actor from New York was the only human on set and had to act opposite an all-star cast who would be recording their voices during a later session. Justin Marks‘ script is a compelling one, even though it is based on a familiar source material. But it isn’t a flawless film, as there are some points in the film where it just doesn’t click all together. But as the cameras keep moving, the world keeps growing, taking you deeper into the jungle and has us forget about those minor strifes.
Favreau does offer a few Mouse House nods to the original by mixing in the Sherman Brothers’ classic themes plus two key songs “Bare Necessities” and “I Just Wanna Be Like You.” Hearing these songs being played on the speakers will surely put you in a swing time groove and have you tapping your feet the moment that first beat drops. Of course, this may feel like they were obligated to add the songs on the account of the fact that the film draws inspiration from the animated film. It just depends on how you feel about it when it is all over.
The Jungle Book is an exceptionally visual masterpiece that pays respect to the original animated film and source material while making it very entertaining to those who aren’t familiar with its roots. It may even inspire some to watch the original animated film or read Kipling’s novel if they haven’t already. Favreau pushes the limits of the CGI technology to give us a visceral movie watching experience, which is energized by Sethi’s performance and the stellar cast providing voice work. It is just one of those rare joys that deserves to be watched on the big screen.