The Jungle Book has seen many iterations over the years. The most famous, of course, comes from the 1967 Disney animation. The polarizing children’s film stands the test of time, and has cemented its place in many of our hearts (and memories). Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) decided to step up to the plate and take his chances with the tale, providing his unique spin on it. One, that surprisingly, works with the same magic and charm of the original.
For anyone unaware of the tale, The Jungle Book follows the adventures of Mowgli, an innocent, pure hearted young boy who lives among the animals in the jungle. He is nurtured by the love of Bagheera (Ben Kinglsey), a black panther and the wolf pack that adopts him, spearheaded by the charismatic Akela. Unfortunately, the animal kingdom has many predators, prideful ones, which unleashes the film’s antagonist, Bengal Tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba). Khan hates Mowgli for multiple reasons, primarily the fact that he is not of the animal kingdom, but a dangerous man. Things are set in motion that forces Mowgli to leave home, and travel, meeting a new friend, Baloo (Bill Murray). Mowgli is then forced to find himself in the jungle, while trying to desperately keep himself from Khan’s terror.
The Jungle Book’s Disney animated iteration is light, fluffy and definitely aimed for a children’s audience. It was meant to be, and it played to that with fun tones, songs and slapstick humor. The Jungle Book 2016 is aimed at the adults who grew up with that, but seek more from it. In terms of scope, themes, elements, characters and just about everything under the sun, The Jungle Book delivers. This, in all meanings, is an adult movie, with mature themes. No, this film isn’t wild with nudity, or language, but its themes of life, death and maturation is far too idealistic for five year old’s (or under). The audience that joined in my experience had many kids around five years old, that frankly, looked bored. This film isn’t meant for them.
The film rides on the curtails of its star, Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli. Sethi is a newcomer, and at the age of ten, his performance is quite surprising. For the most part, he gives a human performance, with a wide array of emotions. A few times you can tell he is a bit lost in terms of aiming his dialogue, as he is practically talking to nothing but thin air(or floating tennis balls to emulate characters). That being said, Sethi turns in a well rounded performance that the film comfortably rides on.
Jon Favreau does something really special here with the CG. For about 99% of this film, it is entirely made up of green screen, CGI or otherwise. Nothing here is shot on location, or in some tropical island. Favreau stuck to his roots in LA, and used studio sound stages. Honestly, this is some of the best, most accurate CG work you will see in a film. One of my immediate worries was seeing the animals talk. Thankfully, the animals talking isn’t off putting, and their expressions are pretty on point. Visually, it is a fantastic movie to look at.
Justin Marks pens the screenplay here. His career hasn’t been impressive, until now. He allows characters to breathe, and allows moments of unsettling tension to build before erupting. Each scene feels well paced, and the film’s hour and 45 minute run time is a breeze. Perhaps even more astounding is the voice cast, with fantastic actors like Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba and Bill Murray. Between these three, it is really hard to pick a top choice, they all do so well. Idris Elba’s voice acting really helps sell Khan, and his intimidating nature. The character is feared, and really helps add more tension to the film’s plot.
All this positive remarks must mean this film is perfect, right? No. The film does have two problem spots. Primarily a scene between Mowgli and Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the hypnotizing snake. The scene acts as nothing but pure exposition, hidden behind a neat trick. This scene, as well as Mowgli meeting King Louie (Christopher Walken), derails the film’s incredible pacing. It doesn’t derail the movie, but it is a bit off putting.
Overall, The Jungle Book came as a complete surprise. Besides two out of place scenes, that slow the film’s plot and tension, the film paces through and really sells this boy, growing into a man, in the forest with his animal friends. Director Jon Favreau puts a lot of confidence into his lead, and powered by a fantastic script, this film is equally moving and powerful. The Jungle Book is one of this year’s most entertaining films.