Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray (Ghostbusters), Ben Kingsley (Ghandi), Idris Elba (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad), Christopher Walken (Catch Me If You Can)
Director: Jon Favreau (Iron Man)
Writer: Justin Marks (Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li)
Runtime: 1 hour 45 minutes
Release Date: 15 April (US, UK)
Disney has had so many animated classics in their rich history, and though The Jungle Book may not be one of their strongest, it does remain one of the most iconic mainly thanks to the wonderful songs written by the great Sherman Brothers. Of all the films in their library to adapt to live-action, it’s an odd choice considering the majority of the cast is made up of non-human characters, but Disney has made a bold choice and with it put their technical mastery to the test. The result is a thoroughly entertaining film full of visual wonder, and one that may even surpass the original that inspired it.
The original Jungle Book film, and Rudyard Kipling’s original stories too, never had much of a cohesive narrative; they were essentially just fun short stories connected by an overarching thread. From a modern perspective, this approach feels too loose and so this new version ties together the original’s disparate pieces into a more cohesive narrative. Most of what you remember is still there, but now it all feels like it serves a greater story that is also enriched by expanding upon its mythology. There’s a better sense of history to this world, the characters have firmer personalities and motivations, and the themes feel more pronounced and modern. It still respects everything that made its forbearer so memorable, but everything changed in this version feels like a necessary one. It’s certainly got a darker and more grounded tone than the original, so much younger viewers should be warned, but never in a way that feels out of place. The film’s main goal remains being to entertain, and from the opening to the closing credits that both pay wonderful tribute to the classic film in nostalgic ways, it succeeds in that goal.
Child actors have always been a difficulty with filmmaking, with the balance between too childish and too adult being one many never master. In Neel Sethi, Jon Favreau not only has the perfect Mowgli but one that never feels out of place in this fantastic world. The young star always has a sense of wonder in his face, but never does it feel forced or misplaced; he genuinely looks invested in this land that does not exist. Acting against nothing is something most adult actors struggle with, but Sethi’s enthusiasm will make you believe he’s really interacting with these animals, but he also manages to convey the stubbornness and the determination the character requires. Without him the whole film would surely fall apart, and that’s a lot of weight to place on a child’s shoulders. Luckily, Sethi has a wonderful supporting cast to accompany him as the now-iconic cast of creatures. Bill Murray is inspired casting as the hedonistic Baloo, injecting the character with much of his affable personality but also a surprising sense of pathos; he’s far more than just a fun-loving bear in this version. Ben Kingsley portrays Bagheera as the stern father figure he’s always been, but with more focus put on the relationship between him and Mowgli that bond feels even stronger here. That sense of familial connection can equally be felt in Mowgli’s connection with his wolf mother Raksha (Nyong’o), who’s given much more of a presence here than in the animated film. Idris Elba’s Shere Khan is the easily the most terrifying the character has ever been, strengthened not only by Elba’s roaring vocals but also by a stronger sense of motivation and principle behind his hunt for Mowgli. Scarlett Johansson lacks screen time as the manipulative snake Kaa, but her seductive tones give the character much more menace in her brief appearance. And then there’s Christopher Walken as King Louie. He sings in the movie. Twice. That’s something that’s either going to put you off or make you love the film even more. For me, it was the latter.
From a quick glance, one could easily presume this film must have been shot in a real jungle and that only the animals are CGI. You’d be wrong though because, with the exception of Mowgli and the few other human characters, everything in this movie was filmed on green screen sets at a soundstage in California. With that knowledge, the film’s breathtaking visuals are even more astounding to take in. Combined with Bill Pope’s vibrant cinematography and the excellent production design that combines familiar elements of the animated film with more realistic texture, I don’t there’s been a more technically complicated film accomplished so masterfully since Avatar; that’s a high bar to clear. There is practically never a moment where you feel like this world isn’t real, even as the animals begin to speak; everything else feels so genuine that it’s a thought that’ll quickly pass your mind. The film also makes strong use of the original’s classic score and songs, retaining the jazzy feel of those compositions whilst also repurposing them into John Debney’s rousing score in a way that feels perfectly natural.
To say this new version of The Jungle Book is a success would be an understatement. Beyond just being a fun film with a strong story and memorable characters, it has pushed the boundaries of modern filmmaking technology even further and opens the doors further for even more imaginative uses of the craft. However, though the visual effects are astounding and is ultimately what makes everything else work, all of the effects are in service to the story and not the other way around; a sentiment so often forgotten in this modern film landscape. Disney’s live action reimaginings have only improved with every effort, and I can only wonder how this film with impact their plans for future efforts. I’m looking at you, Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast.
FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10