Does Disney have another classic with their live-action adventure for Mowgli? Oscar is the bear(er) of very comforting news.
Jon Favreau’s live-action/CGI adaptation of The Jungle Book is a film I had no idea I wanted, but when I finally saw it, I wanted it like chocolate. This film has caught me by surprise in more ways than one, and is quite likely the best live-action film from Walt Disney Pictures since 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Amazingly, it is perhaps better!
The story is familiar enough. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a man-cub raised by the Indian wolf couple Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) ever since he was brought to them as a baby by panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). One day, all the animals in the jungle gather at the Peace Rock to drink the water that remains, but the peace is disturbed when Shere Khan the tiger (Idris Elba) arrives and declares that man is forbidden in the jungle, and vows to slay the man-cub. Bagheera volunteers to take the reluctant Mowgli to the closest village for his own protection, but Shere Khan follows them every step of the way. Eventually, Mowgli finds himself separated from Bagheera, and falls into the coils of sinister python Kaa (Scarlett Johannson). Before the hungry snake can devour Mowgli, the kind-hearted Baloo (Bill Murray) rescues the boy and takes him under his wing, showing him the brighter side of the jungle, and teaching him all the “Bare Necessities” of life. However, Shere Khan is intent on killing Mowgli and holds his wolf family hostage.
Holy moly, what a cast this is! Sethi is absolutely ideal casting as Mowgli; not only does he resemble the character from the cartoon, but he is able to act superbly in an almost entirely green-screened environment. I dare say this is the most likeable version of Mowgli I have seen so far. Murray brings a lot of humour and charm to Baloo, and while he doesn’t have the bass of the original played by Phil Harris, you still end up endeared to him. Elba has incredible menace and presence as Shere Khan – just as good a villain here as in the 60s. While not as suave and genteel as George Sanders, he has more of a barbarian king vibe to him, as well as an understandable motivation for wanting to kill Mowgli. Nyong’o is very sweet and gentle as the mother wolf Raksha, and her expanded presence is a welcome addition. Kingsley as Bagheera is indeed spot-on, and Esposito instills wisdom and warmth in the wolf leader Akela. However, Johansson as Kaa might be the weak link in the film; she certainly sounds better in the movie than in the trailers, but I still felt aware I was listening to her voice the whole time. But beware – Christopher Walken as King Louie will steal the show; he’s slick, intimidating, crazy… and he sings!
The production is fabulous. It does a fantastic job of balancing real threat with humour as well as the depth of the book. There are plenty of visual and dialogue-based references to both the book and the 60s animation. The action can be quite visceral, though not to the absurd degree of PG-13 territory, but just enough to work in context. The only point where the film lost momentum for me was during the Kaa scene, mainly because of how she reveals how Mowgli came to be lost in the jungle, falling back on the usual “tell don’t show” problem a lot of films fall into.
John Debney provides a classical and uplifting score, mixing tribal instruments and drums with thrilling and brassy cues, but there’s not too many new and memorable themes. Where he does excel is in homage to the original classic, not just the familiar musical numbers, but also the songs “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You,” which are brilliantly integrated into the film and feel natural to the spirited tone. To top it off, both songs receive a classy jazz treatment in the full credits sung by Bill and Christopher, respectively, complete with Scarlett’s sultry turn singing “Trust in Me.”
To address the elephant in the room: yes this film is technically 95% CGI animation, ranging from the animals to the very jungle around them, with Sethi as the one constant live-action element. Sometimes, you’ll see something that looks a little more physical like the inside of a cave or a muddy riverbed, but most of the time, this is pure, unadulterated CGI. It’s not really live-action at all, but to call it just a “cartoon” in the traditional sense doesn’t do it justice. It’s what I hereby coin “High Concept Animation.” Everything that is computer-generated is designed to be 100% photorealistic, and you believe that a real bear, panther or tiger is talking to Mowgli. The animals have weight and presence, every strike and pawprint has impact. It doesn’t have the stylistic flair of an animated production, as it’s meant to be REAL. And you know what, I believed it – I saw the characters coming to life! Even subtle things such as the slight resemblance of Baloo to Murray or the very clear similarity between Louie and Walken gave it all charm. If I had to nitpick one aspect of the CGI, it is when we see Baloo in close-up for the first time; it didn’t feel authentic to me, but that was quickly swept aside the more we saw of him.
Having seen it in 3D, I can say it is a visual experience worth investigating for those who are curious, at the expense of a more vibrant movie. The atmosphere of the jungle, while very detailed, is not like any jungle you would find in real-life; at times it can be full of colour and vibrancy, and at other times, it can be incredibly murky and dark. The animators gave the jungle such character and presence that this was no gimmick, and the story truly benefitted from having an extra level of grit and danger. Even certain elements of the cartoon that were played for laughs receive a more serious treatment, such as the elephants who aren’t the bumbling faux-military characters stomping all over the jungle. Here, they’re shown more as Kipling envisioned them: powerful, noble and silent guardians of the jungle. Shere Khan, who was already a force to be reckoned with, proves his ferocity fairly early on in the film in a way that caught me completely off-guard.
The homages to the Kipling story are appropriate and feel natural to the film. The actual Law of the Jungle from the text is brought over, and the wolves are given much more to say and do, as opposed to the animated movie where they really were very minor characters. The term for fire, “Red Flower,” is given the same mythological and fearful connotations as the book, and we feel the power it bestows on the wielder when Mowgli brings it to the jungle. Throughout the film, we see Mowgli grow and become wiser; at first he wants to protect the wolfpack by leaving with Bagheera, and despite his stubbornness at wanting to return to civilisation, he does prove himself in the end. The climax touches on what makes Mowgli special and how his abilities actually make him unique among the animals, whilst also being a part of their world. It was a mature message that managed not to be preachy.
Favreau succeeds where few directors under Disney have; he had the family-friendly appeal of the original, as well as an injection of more mature themes, and it’s all balanced superbly. As far as remakes of classics go, this is by far and away the most reverential whilst also being arguably the best. The script by Justin Marks is a worthy and admirable work, too, with dialogue straight from the animated film, and a healthy serving of fresh humour that doesn’t feel cheap. The balance between being a fun kids’ film and something more adult is top-notch, unlike Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which ignored both the book and the cartoon to inert effect, and the awful Maleficent which pissed on its animated counterpart and tried to offer itself as the “true story.” Favreau’s take on Kipling’s text is more of a love-letter to both the original and the animated movie. It’s a love child of both worlds, and is able to adapt the story in a way that’s faithful whilst retaining the Disney spirit. As much as I enjoyed the 90s Stephen Sommers film, it really wasn’t The Jungle Book, but the new film absolutely is, through and through.
If future adaptations of their animated catalogue are this thoughtful, heartfelt and reverent, then they have my blessing. All the same, with rich and memorable characters, genuine poignancy, spectacular visuals, clever screenwriting, heartfelt callbacks, and a fantastic young man-cub to top it off, this venture into the jungle was well worth the trip.