The beguilingly credible CGI rendering of real-life animals takes its biggest leap forward since Life of Pi in Disney’s new telling of The Jungle Book. Exceptionally beautiful to behold and bolstered by a stellar vocal cast, this umpteenth film rendition of Rudyard Kipling’s tales of young Mowgli’s adventures amongst the creatures of the Indian jungle proves entirely engaging, even if it’s ultimately lacking in subtext and thematic heft. Most Jungle Book big-screen adaptations have done very well at the box office — the 1967 version, the last animated film Walt Disney personally supervised, was the second-biggest grosser of its year, behind only The Graduate — and this one will be no exception upon its April 15 release as it takes the baton from the studio’s fresher, more original smash Zootopia.
Nor will this be the last we hear of Mowgli, Shere Khan, Kaa and the others for a while. Warner Bros.’ live-action Jungle Book: Origins, directed by Andy Serkis and featuring the likes of Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch and Serkis himself as Baloo the bear, started shooting a year ago and is set for release in October 2017.
Visually stunning and entirely engaging.
From the embracing opening image (extra effective in 3D), which smoothly backtracks from the Cinderella castle logo right into the jungle setting, director Jon Favreau makes his new film instantly welcoming with its wonderfully detailed wilderness environment anyone would swear is real. It also provides clear dramatic orientation through the imposing voice of narrator Ben Kingsley in the guise of the black panther Bagheera, who watches over orphaned Indian boy Mowgli (Neel Sethi, who’s limber, energetic and a tad emphatic at times). The latter has been raised by wolves but can scamper through the trees with the assurance of a monkey and is able to survive partly by virtue of a truce that allows all animals to gather around a watering hole without fear of becoming lunch for their natural predators.
Justin Marks’ script may veer rather too far from reality in depicting its jungle creatures as fundamentally peaceable, apart from the menacing tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba, oozing malignant nuance) and Kaa, an enormous tree-dwelling serpent given hypnotically seductive voice by Scarlett Johansson. To be sure, Disney has not dropped the genre’s sure-fire comic-relief staples (a baby elephant, a cutesy little porcupine), but the exceptional photographic realism lends the work a real-world gravity that sets it leagues apart from the strenuously ingratiating kid-pic conventions in the likes of the Madagascar or Ice Age series, for example, and will help invest even adult audiences in the incident-packed adventure. Not only in their appearances are the creatures here quite far from being traditional cartoon critters; they talk (predominantly in distinguished British-tinged English) among themselves and with Mowgli, who possesses a conspicuously American accent.
The action pivots on Bagheera’s decision that it’s finally time for Mowgli to leave his jungle home and join his own species. Protesting that he doesn’t have a clue what humans are like, Mowgli is finally convinced when the wise panther promises to see him to his destination, resulting in a treacherous trek that leads them across increasingly inhospitable landscapes and into contact with all manner of animals. It’s like a Heart of Darkness for kids.
The tone significantly shifts with the arrival of Baloo (Bill Murray), a genial rascal of a bear whose addiction to honey instantly stamps him as a grown-up Winnie the Pooh. Strenuous effort has been expended to inject every line of Baloo’s ever-flowing commentary with snappy comedy, a challenge met with success perhaps half the time. It also falls to Murray to resurrect Terry Gilkyson’s song “The Bare Necessities” from the 1967 film.
But while the simple Baloo is content with the massive honeycombs Mowgli is able to procure for him, a more formidable figure awaits in a spectacular abandoned ancient city. Kidnapped by no-nonsense monkeys, Mowgli is put at the mercy of the Godfather of the jungle, a grossly overgrown orangutan named King Louie (Christopher Walken) who talks with an old New Yawk accent and insists that Mowgli “summon the red flower,” the animals’ term for the one thing humans seem to possess and control that animals can’t: fire. For his part, sometime song-and-dance man Walken gets to reprise the Sherman Brothers’ tune Louis Prima handled 49 years ago, “I Wan’na Be Like You.”
The action finale, while well staged, is pretty predictable and includes a bad-guy death that repeats the same means of demise that greets the vast majority of Disney arch-villains going back decades (no hints, but it would be great to have this remarkable consistency explained).
But even as the drama and its treatment become increasingly conventional and familiar as the film moves toward its patly (and arguably overly) audience-pleasing wrap-up, the exceptional visual quality and lifelike animal renditions remain stunning throughout. Favreau and cinematographer Bill Pope vigorously keep the camera moving at all but the quietest moments, and the visual effects team led by Robert Legato and Adam Valdez has both created sumptuous settings that look as lifelike as any CGI ever presented in a studio feature and integrated both humans and animal characters into them in seamless ways. After having completely succeeded in transporting you to its primeval jungle setting, the pic concludes, at the very end of the lengthy final credits, with the cheeky note, “Filmed in Downtown Los Angeles.” At least one sort of movie magic is still very much at work here.
Production: Fairview Entertainment
Cast: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Garry Shandling, Brighton Rose
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenwriter: Justin Marks, based on the books by Rudyard Kipling
Producers: Jon Favreau, Brigham Taylor
Executive producers: Peter Tobyansen, Molly Allen, Karen Gilchrist
Director of photography: Bill Pope
Production designer: Christopher Glass
Costume designer: Laura Jean Shannon
Editor: Mark Livolsi
Music: John Debney
Visual effects supervisors: Robert Legato, Adam Valdez
Casting: Sarah Halley Finn
Rated PG, 107 minutes