By Matt Fleming. To be kind, I will admit that the idea of a live-action/CGI adaptation of Disney’s The Jungle Book had me perplexed. I’ve been scoffing at very concept of photorealistic animals singing and prancing about a computer-generated jungle since the first trailer arrived, and I was even more skeptical of the intent of director Jon Favreau, whose last two big-budget studio films were Iron Man 2 and Cowboys And Aliens. (He gets a pass for Chef.) It seemed that with every successive voice actor announcement (Scarlett Johansson! Christopher Walken! Bill Murray?!), I grew more and more incredulous to the whole affair. Then, about five minutes into the film, surrounded by filmgoers of all ages, I started to feel it. That churning sensation that so rarely encompasses me, the kind that erases all the bitterness and melancholy that adulthood can saddle upon a human being. Watching The Jungle Book, I felt like a kid.
There is transformative beauty in Disney latest live-action adaptation. At its core, it’s a children’s story, but it manages both the 1967 animated classic and its literary source so deftly that it ends up successfully appealing to every single demographic imaginable. There’s a little pandering to be sure, but far less than we should expect from a Disney movie with a hundred years of baggage to contend with. Yes, there are a couple musical numbers, but boy-howdy are they done well (I dare anyone leaving this movie to try avoiding a little whistle on their way out). There are some clever adjustments to the plot, which is to say that there is a pretty concise story this go-around, and a few closer nods to Kipling’s original are sprinkled throughout. Perhaps the most important change is the ending, which might prompt some adults to give the ‘67 ‘toon a quick rewatch, y’know, for clarity’s sake.
Although The Jungle Book is outstanding in its themes and writing, the real beauty in this film is its visuals. Not since Avatar has a movie truly set the pace for advancement in CGI. Give due to Gravity and Interstellar for bringing audiences closer to the heavens, but The Jungle Book has created an uncanny wilderness that makes our world seem that much more magical. It’s hard to believe that the only organic substance on film is Neel Sethi’s Mowgli, because as much as these animals may speak, they truly exist in masterful fashion. King Louie, now a gargantuan ape known as a Giganthropithicus, is just one of many wonders that’ll drop your jaw. The elephants are elegant, the wolves adorable, and the tiger… the tiger is totally terrifying.
Scarlett Johannson is fine if replaceable as the python Kaa, but the rest of the voice actors are as good as you could ask for. Ben Kingsley is muted and stoic as Bagheera, and Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o are perfect as the protective wolves, Akera and Raksha. Idris Elba’s Shere Khan might give kids (and adults) nightmares for years, and Christopher Walken is the King Louie we never knew we needed. However, it’s Bill Murray’s Baloo that steals the show, bringing an emotional vulnerability I would have never expected to such a beast of a bear. The life the actors give these animals is wonderful. The real breakout performance, however, is from newcomer Neel Sethi; as the heart and soul of the movie, Sethi manages to bridge the nuances of being a regular kid with all the harrows of navigating a world that doesn’t quite understand him. (Or exist, for that matter.)
Ultimately, the newest incarnation of The Jungle Book is the best one yet. This is the kind of movie that film studios ought to be making for kids, because it appeals to everyone. There’s a single moment of unnecessary humor that seems pulled directly from a bag of tired tricks that kids’ feature writers seem to draw material from, but as a whole The Jungle Book dwells on the important stuff. It’s a movie that teaches us to be accepting of others and ourselves. If this movie inspires kids to be nice to each other, or heaven-forbid read a book, then all the digital wonderment is worth every penny. To be succinct, this film is a bare necessity for you and your kids.
Directed by Jon Favreau.
Produced by Jon Favreau and Brigham Taylor.
Screenplay by Justin Marks.
Based on “The Jungle Book” by Rudyard Kipling.
Starring Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken and Neel Sethi.
8 out of 10