Confessional time: I’ve never actually watched Disney’s animated classic The Jungle Book. I’ve seen bits and pieces of it, and I’m aware of “The Bare Necessities” but I’ve never sat and watched it from beginning to end. I’ve also never read the classic novel by Rudyard Kipling. I don’t think this makes me a complete philistine, it’s just one of those movies that is in my cinematic blind spot, which we all have. Regardless, I have been eagerly awaiting Disney’s live-action adaptation, especially after how impressed I was with 2015’s Cinderella, which was a marked improvement over the uneven Maleficent. The Jungle Book is the best live-adaptation that Disney has made to-date, complete with a great child performance, great voice acting, and impressive visuals.
The story is one that should be familiar to a lot of people, even to me it is part of the collective consciousness. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a young boy, known as a man-cub, who was orphaned in the jungle, found by the black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), and raised by a pack of wolves by his adoptive mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and under the protection of the pack leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). That protection is threatened during a dry season by the arrival of Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a Bengal tiger who threatens to kill Mowgli once the dry season has ended and the Water Truce is no longer in place. For the safety of his pack, Mowgli decides to leave and be taken by Bagheera to the man village where he can be safe amongst his own kind and have a new pack. Along the way, he is separated from Bagheera and crosses paths with the python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), a giant ape named King Louie (Christopher Walken), and forges a friendship with the bear Baloo (Bill Murray).
Jon Favreau has a pretty strong track record as a director, and he adds to his quietly impressive resume here. There is so much to like about this film. The story, adapted by Justin Marks, whose only feature-length writing credit before this was Street Fighter: The Legend of Chong Li, has substance and resonance and wide appeal for both kids and adults, but not in the way a lot of films do that today where there are jokes or elements to the story that only adults will get. Like Cinderella, it is a fairly traditional Disney story. It also does not sugarcoat any aspect of the story. Shere Khan wants to kill Mowgli and his threat to do means that Mowgli’s presence in the jungle puts others in danger.
There are real stakes involved in Mowgli’s journey. There’s a recurring theme of danger and protection running through the story; Kaa offers her own kind of safety for Mowgli, while King Louie’s offer of protection comes at a price. There’s also a strong theme of community and finding out how to fit into the world around you. Mowgli is raised like he is a wolf and is told not to use “man tricks” by Bagheera for most of the film. It is only when he embraces who he really is that he is able to really fit instead of trying to be something he is not. His friendship with Baloo helps to bring this out in him.
The voice acting is almost entirely note-perfect. Ben Kingsley brings a gravitas and wizened nature to Bagheera. Bill Murray is a perfect Baloo, bringing a lot of joy and levity and warmth with the character. Lupita Nyong’o, fresh off the heels of being Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Force Awakens gives another good turn in the vocal department. Christopher Walken’s King Louie is a real treat. The real standout, though, is Idris Elba as Shere Khan. His vocal performance adds to the menace and strength that is seen visually in tiger. Oddly enough, the one performance that didn’t quite work for me here is Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, even though I thought her voice acting in Her was outstanding. I know they were going for an enchanting, hypnotizing voice in that role, but for me her voice just didn’t match the character as well as the others did.
When a story has a child as one of the main characters or as the main character, the success of a film like this can live or die on the performance of the child actor that is cast. Casting kids in these roles can really be hit or miss too. Young Neel Sethi, fortunately, is terrific. He is very natural as Mowgli, which had to be doubly difficult given that he was probably acting with a lot of green screen and puppets. Favreau gets a great performance out of the boy. He even moves with the kind of lanky, angular movement that Mowgli did in the animated movies at times. It’s really impressive how they managed to blend him into the jungle world they created.
And what a world it is. This is perhaps the most photo-realistic portrayal of animals ever depicted in film by CGI. I can’t think of an animal that comes across as fake or unnatural. They are amazingly detailed and their movement is incredibly life-like. Also, the jungle that surrounds them is lush and sprawling and full of vibrancy and detail. It truly is a visual achievement. I’m almost certain it will garner award consideration in the special effects department. The only nitpick I have with it is the same one I have with most films that are made for 3D: when viewed in regular 2D there is a kind of textured look to some of the shots that is momentarily distracting. It’s difficult to describe, but it is noticeable. But it’s barely distracting and easy to ignore when there is so much to enjoy on screen.
Disney’s live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book is nothing short of an accomplishment. It is a genuine achievement of filmmaking and a sight to behold. It’s a great story that adds more depth than the original 1967 animated film. Neel Sethi is an impressive young actor, a real find. The voice acting and the CGI of the animal characters is for the most part totally praiseworthy. As impressed as I was with Cinderella last year, I have no reservations saying that The Jungle Book is the best live-action adaptation that Disney has done to date, and the degree of difficultly in pulling this one off was almost certainly greater given the level of CGI needed. I hope it is a sign of things to come for the future live-action adaptations they have planned.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars