Jon Favreau has developed into a considerably versatile director, seamlessly moving from projects like the Iron Man franchise, to an indie gem like Chef. His track record convinced Disney he was the right man to take the directing reins on their reimagining of their 1967 animated classic, The Jungle Book. Disney was not wrong. The Jungle Book is an intense and enjoyable adventure, that honors the original film, as well as the original source material.
Like it’s animated predecessor, the film ties together a few of Rudyard Kipling’s stories from the original 1894 novel, as well as Kipling’s 1895 sequel, The Second Jungle Book. Favreau manages to find a nice balance between the two inspirations, though it leans considerably more on Kipling’s work, as my memory serves me (it’s been more than twenty years since I’ve read the original book). Like the book, there is a fair amount of time dedicated to the politics of the jungle, a subject that is glossed over in the animated version.
I’ve been critical of stunt casting in animated films in the past, but the casting here is spot on. Bill Murray is perfectly cast as the aloof, con artist bear, Baloo (originally voiced by Phil Harris), who thinks of very little outside of gaining access to a bounty of honey. Kipling describes the black panther Bagheera as soft spoken, though cunning, bold, and reckless, characteristics all exemplified by the voice acting of Ben Kingsley. Christopher Walken (and screenwriter Justin Marks) make the bold choice to portray the orangutan King Louie as a mob boss, a far cry from Louie Prima’s rather jovial portrayal in the original animated film. This utilizes Walken’s particular acting style, and it really pays off. Even bolder was the decision to make Louie a Gigantopithecus, which is an extinct species of giant apes originally native to the India region. The character of King Louie does not appear in the original book (orangutans are not found in India), so taking the step to make him an extinct species is not that far of a leap. Portraying him as a Gigantopithecus not only allowed the inclusion of an otherwise geographically inaccurate orangutan (as anachronistic as it may be), but made for quite the menacing adversary.
In his second of three animated Disney films (the others being Zooptopia and the upcoming Finding Dory), Idris Elba is a stand out as the villainous Bengal tiger, Shere Khan. Khan is a truly terrifying antagonist, due primarily to Elba’s performance (Benedict Cumberbatch, who will be voicing Shere Khan in the 2018 Warner Bros. adaptation, certainly has his work cut out for him). But as good as the voice acting is in the film, enough credit can’t be given to newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli. Sethi is by enlarge, the only physical actor in the film, meaning the twelve year old was acting to only puppets on a blue screen set. Sethi plays Mowgli with a sincere innocence, but still manages to convey the character’s understanding of the gravity of his situation. It’s an impressive achievement for a child that had never acted before.
The Jungle Book was filmed on a soundstage in Los Angeles, but you would hardly know it, as we are treated to a lavish photorealistic (albeit a bit hyper realistic) jungle environment. Only the fact that the jungle set locations serve the story so perfectly well tips us off that it is completely computer generated. It is another milestone in CGI filmmaking (Had George Lucas been able to create this level of realism with the Star Wars prequels, perhaps they would have received a bit less criticism, though that’s probably not likely). I’m not an advocate of the complete transition to CGI by any means, but for a film of this nature, it’s perfectly used.
As previously mentioned, there is quite a few nods to the 1967 animated version. To start, the film opens with the original mysterious score by composer George Bruns, which really sets the tone for both films. Specific scenes are faithfully recreated, such as the hypnotizing of Mowgli by the python Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and Baloo and Mowgli’s lazy river ride. We are also treated to renditions of the songs, “Bare Necessities,” “Wanna Be like You,” and “Trust in Me,” the former two ranking amongst Disney’s most famous and beloved. “Bare Necessities” is performed by Baloo and Mowgli in a very casual manner, just two friends enjoying a song together, and fits quite naturally in the scene. “Trust in Me,” performed effectively by Johansson, is reserved for the closing credits. Unfortunately, Christopher Walken’s “I Wanna Be Like You” is one of the few missteps in the film. This take on The Jungle Book is a considerably more “realistic” version of Kipling’s stories, if anthropomorphic animals can be considered realistic, but unlike “Bare Necessities,” “I Wanna Be Like You” is a full musical production, which has no place in a film of this tone. It’s too bad too, as the original is one of the highlights of the entire Disney catalog. Don’t get me wrong, listening to Christopher Walken sing this is fantastic, but it doesn’t belong in this film.
This misstep is very forgivable, as it is one of the very few in the film. The only other issue I had with the film involves the climax, which contains a moment that is a touch too “Disney,” but it is such a minor quibble, that it’s easily overlooked. The Jungle Book may be a bit too intense for younger viewers, so I would be leery about letting young children see it. But as for everyone else, it’s a film that is very much worth seeing (though I would skip the 3D, as it proves to be more distracting than effective). The Jungle Book is just one of many remakes Disney has produced, or is currently developing, and I admit I was skeptical about them to begin with, but if the rest are as good as The Jungle Book, my concerns will have been for not.