Written By Robert Trate
Starring: Neel Sethi, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, Sir Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken and Giancarlo Esposito
Director: Jon Favreau
Original Year of Release: 2016
Run Time: 105 Minutes
Disney is now in full swing of remaking their animated classics into live-action features. Already, we have had Cinderella (2015) and a re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty titled, Maleficent (2014). Tackling The Jungle Book seems like both a great idea, with making realistic looking animals talk a la the modern Planet of the Apes films, and also terrifying because those Apes don’t sing musical numbers. With Jon Favreau (Iron Man and Iron Man 2) attached to direct, Disney went back to the well again and released a new Jungle Book.
Without any real preconceptions of what to expect, I found The Jungle Book to be the next logical choice in Disney’s realistic remakes. As I mentioned before, the work with motion capture has only been pushing that medium further and further. We’ve come a long way since Jar Jar Binks and even Gollum. I am not well acquainted with the 1967 classic animated film, but I am aware of the song “The Bare Necessities” and the basic plot of the story. Director Jon Favreau got me into the theater, but exactly what kind of movie was thing going to be? A musical? A faithful adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s book? I had no clue, which was completely refreshing.
For the uninitiated, The Jungle Book is the tale of boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi). Found as a small child by a panther called Bagheera (Sir Ben Kingsley), Mowgli is raised as a wolf and becomes a member of the pack. His adoptive parents Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) considered him their own. So when the scared Bengal tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), discovers that a man-cub is living in the jungle, he wants him dead. The reasons why are revealed later as the story unfolds. As the wolves decide what to do about Shere Khan, Mowgli decides to leave to protect his family. Bagheera proposes that perhaps it is time for Mowgli to live with his own kind, and thus the story begins.
I was immediately impressed with the level of motion capture and computer generated effects. Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, and Sir Ben Kingsley speak as their characters and their mouths are in complete sync. The effect teams never lose sight of how these animals would open and close their mouths, making the dialogue look very natural. The jungle itself is also a complete character as is one minute, Mowgli’s home, or the next, a dark and foreboding place. Without these elements working in perfect sync, it would be very difficult to give yourself over to the adventure that is The Jungle Book.
To both their credits, Neel Sethi and Idris Elba each play perfect characterizations of a young hero, Mowgli, and a vicious villain, Shere Khan. Sethi is a small hero in a big world and once he loses the protection of Bagheera and the wolves, he has to make it on his own. This can be a make or break moment for the character. Will we buy into this adventure if the actor cannot pull it off? No. Thankfully, Sethi plays Mowgli with a bit of wonder and realism, all the while making him accessible to a modern audience. At times, his dialogue can be a bit jarring, but at no time is there an establishment of when this film takes place. We learn that his father brought him into the jungle, but no era for the film is set. As for Idris Elba, his villain is the true threat of the film. Never wavering from his commitment to kill the man-cub, Elba delivers a villain that is on the same level as Maleficent and Cruella De Vil. Fantasy films, such as this, need strong villains that we actually fear. If they aren’t present, then our hero’s journey feels shallow, as if it had no real meaning. Mark my words, this is a hero’s journey.
So is this a musical, or a faithful adaptation to the book? It is a musical, which still shocked me. Sure, we had a bit of a tease that it could be, with Bill Murray’s Baloo whistling his famed jingle down the river, but a full musical number? Oh yes. Favreau plays Baloo's song for more laughs than straight up Broadway and keeps Murray reigned in as well. That casting sounds like a good idea, but with thoughts of Murray’s portrayal of Garfield running through my head, I thought John Goodman (who did play Baloo in the 2003 straight-to-video sequel) may have been a better choice. Murray is a tad restrained here and completely refreshing; more Murray from Lost in Translation than the caricature he has become. The big number arrives in true Broadway form from the Broadway actor himself, Christopher Walken, who plays King Louie. Walken’s giant orangoutang maybe the most unsettling of all the characters that Mowgli encounters, as he has not only Walken’s voice, but his eyes. The same eyes that made him the King of New York, make him the King of the Jungle.
I heard a few people mention, outside the theater, that this story did not end the same way it did in the 1967 Disney animated film. I had no complaints with the finale of this picture. Mowgli was a true hero brought to life. A hero who realized how special his life was and how important family is. Without ever being too sappy or redundant, Favreau’s Jungle Book is a new classic for the modern era. Thankfully, the sequel has already been green lighted.