When Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland surprisingly took in over a billion dollars worldwide, it created a new subgenre for Walt Disney Studios – the live action remake of their animated classics. In the intervening years, the Mouse House has released Malficent and Cinderella to worldwide box office appeal. The latest animated classic to get the live action treatment is The Jungle Book. This modern adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic book is directed by Jon Favreau, and is a stunning technical marvel that has a strong emotional center. The Jungle Book is the finest of Disney’s recent live action adaptations, one of the few films that still has the movie magic that leaves the audience wondering, “How did they do that?”
The story isn’t much different than you remember: Mowgli (played by newcomer Neel Sethi) was raised in the jungle by a pack of wolves led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). The young boy commonly referred to as the “man cub” was discovered by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), who put the child in the care of the wolves. With an overriding hatred of man, the nefarious tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) wants the young boy killed. In order to save the young boy, Bagheera and Akela need to return the young boy to the human village on the outskirts of the jungle. However, an attack from Shere Khan separates Mowgli from Bagheera, and the young boy must survive in the jungle all on his own, but not for long as he quickly befriends the bear Baloo (Bill Murray). Mowgli and Baloo quickly build a friendship, and leaves the young boy yearning to keep his home in the jungle. Of course, that’s no easy when the bloodthirsty Shere Khan is out for the young boy’s blood.
In all honesty, to call The Jungle Book a live action film is a bit misleading. Aside from the young Neel Sethi, practically everything on screen is computer generated – this film is only slightly less animated than the 1967 animated classic. Not that it really matters, as Favreau has crafted an immersive world, one that’s easy to get wrapped up in. The emotive faces of the CG animals is astounding, the kind of work that defies the simplest explanation of “it was computers.” At once, these creatures are photorealistic and anthropomorphized: Shere Khan looks absolutely terrifying, while some of the young wolf cubs are ridiculously cute. Favreau pulls off quite the balancing act with the film’s overriding artifice with a feeling of realism.
As the sole human in the film, Neel Sethi is a fairly typical child actor. He’s wide-eyed and not always naturalistic in his line delivery. In that way that child actors he can be annoying, he sometimes is. But Neel Sethi isn’t forced to carry the burden of The Jungle Book, and his deficiencies as a young actor (he is just a kid) are mitigated by the excellent casting of the animal cast. There’s probably no better actor to portray this version of Baloo than Bill Murray, and the legendary comedic actor gives an astounding vocal performance. Much in the same way is the vocal performance of Idris Elba as Shere Khan. When the villainous tiger appears onscreen he makes you squirm in your seat. When Elba’s booming voice comes from the big cat’s menacing visage, the chills are actively crawling down your spine.
The Jungle Book also features slightly updated versions of some classic songs from the 1967 version. The young Mowgli and Baloo collaborate on singing “Bare Necessities,” which gives the audience a nice whiff of nostalgia without becoming overbearing. Don’t expect the ghost of Louis Prima to croon out “I Wanna Be Like You.” In this updated version, King Louie and his crooning number is performed by Christopher Walken, and the set piece that follows the song is among one of the film’s finest moments. Also returning from the prior incarnations is the slithering snake Kaa (voiced by the sultry Scarlett Johansson). Time and time again, The Jungle Book is a wholly modern work with its roots in the past, yet never relying on the audience’s past connection to do the heavy lifting for the story.
The script by Justin Marks is remarkable in its ability to create real emotional weight from its CG-creatures. Not only does it bring up the themes of nature versus nurture, but we’re given reason after reason to understand why these character care about each other, which gives the viewer a reason to care about the characters. There’s also a strong environmentalist streak to this updated version of The Jungle Book, with the destructive nature of man constantly under scrutiny. The thematic and emotional undercurrent to Favreau’s strong visual storytelling make The Jungle Book as compelling as its ever been.
Nothing is going to stop Disney from churning out updated versions of its animated classics. As long as they keep turning a profit, they’ll keep pumping them out. But as long as the updates are as strongly constructed as The Jungle Book, I’ll eagerly await the next one. As he did with Iron Man, Favreau once again proves that he’s a director capable taking on massive blockbuster material, blending the spectacle with a strong human element. With a great script, great vocal cast, and incredible direction, The Jungle Book is a triumph for Disney and Favreau. The Jungle Book encapsulates the magic of the movies, with a story that works for both young and old, and effects that bring back the wonder of yesteryear.
The Jungle Book
A technical marvel with a resounding emotional element, The Jungle Book is a triumph for Jon Favreau and Walt Disney Studios.