“The Jungle Book” | Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Lupita N’yongo, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito, Garry Shandling | Screenwriter: Justin Marks | Director: Jon Favreau
Ever since this film was first announced to be in pre-production nearly three years ago, there was considerable hesitation among fans and industry folk alike. The 1967 Disney film was essentially a masterpiece that (thankfully) had little relation to Rudyard Kipling’s controversial collection of stories printed in 1894. What was created today through the magic of processors is an dark adventure film that moonlights as a morality tale, featuring a plethora of CG animals that nearly reach the Uncanny Valley. To paraphrase a fellow reviewer, The Jungle Book is indeed like watching a Disney film partly inspired by Apocalypto.
Directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man 1 and 2, Chef), this “reimagining” of a sentimental childhood classic does and doesn’t add anything new, save for the scarily realistic animation Disney has been aching to showcase for some time. Nevertheless, Favreau manages to weave an enjoyable movie for all audiences while never compromising in forging violent action scenes and imparting the usual streaks of darkness in his lead characters.
Credit must be given to Neel Sethi for pulling off one of the greatest performances by a child actor in the history of show business. A majority of his performance in Jungle Book was completed with absolutely no one else on set with him, save for a few tennis balls on sticks. For a 10-year old being the lead in his first film no less, this is a feat that should be lauded. Sethi’s uncanny ability to project his sensitivity pays off well as he displays a large heart in a number of scenes, mainly with Raksha (voiced by The Force Awakens’ Lupita N’yongo) and Baloo (Mr. Bill Murray himself). Furthermore, this Mowgli isn’t without his lumps, bruises and scars. The jungle is very much alive and a threatening place for every creature that resides within its borders. While The Jungle Book is a film that’s both an adventure movie for kids and a nostalgia-laden jaunt for adults, make no mistake that Mowgli and the others are all part of a food chain as they would be in real life.
Many may be surprised by the film’s deep sense of foreboding, as a veil of darkness permeates The Jungle Book throughout its running time. Screenwriter Justin Marks predominantly took his beats from the 1967 animated classic but the subtle dread and fatalistic tones of Rudyard Kipling’s book is present and crafted to make a more sobering version of a tale generally perceived as lighthearted and vibrant. Whereas many aren’t aware of the staunchly racist and classist attitudes that Kipling infused in his book, his rampant sense of imperialist pride is obviously stripped away though the dangers of a boy who interacts with these wild, supremely cunning animals remains.
Whereas Mowgli was a character meant to be seen as a boy that eventually turns into a man and rightfully inherits his dominion over nature, that is far from the case in The Jungle Book. These animals, as best as Favreau as fashion them, are quite alive and able to think independently. They all have an agenda that revolves around Mowgli, be it baser in origin (e.g. hunger) or a more complex scheme like establishing a technological advantage over other species. Not all of them are keen on Mowgli, who they believed overstayed his welcome in the jungle and should return to his own kind. Others like Shere Khan (Idris Elba) want to remove the human element by far more quicker, deadlier means. During the man-cub’s journey he meets all the characters many of us know and love quite well from the ‘67 film yet the added dimension to them – psychologically and graphically – doesn’t entirely work. Although the voice work was excellent all around, the presentation of a few during their grand introductions felt a bit disjointed.
Don’t expect a plethora of song and dance performances; these animals aren’t here for your leisure. What few familiar numbers Favreau chose to include The Jungle Book don’t evoke the cheerful, lively sentiment from series’ past; what is belted by the actors is done so in a peculiar, offbeat manner that resonates to the distorted world which they all reside.
Expanding the importance of the wolf pack – especially Mowgli’s relationship with his “mother” Raksha – was one of many alterations that weren’t present in the first Disney film. In fact, the entire third act of Jungle Book is a wholly new story with a rather provocative conclusion that spells out “SEQUEL” in big flashing lights. As it stands on it’s own, The Jungle Book is a fanciful effects-laden homage to days past when a film’s strengths relied more on its script than the spectacle. Thankfully, a balance could be found amidst the pageantry of what will likely be Disney’s latest box office gem of 2016.
The Jungle Book = 8.2/10