Movie Review: The Jungle Book is a wild time
Director: Jon Favreau
Writers: Justin Marks (screenplay), Rudyard Kipling (book)
Stars: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o
Synopsis: The man-cub Mowgli flees the jungle after a threat from the tiger Shere Khan. Guided by Bagheera the panther and the bear Baloo, Mowgli embarks on a journey of self-discovery, though he also meets creatures who don’t have his best interests at heart.
When Disney announced their slate for all these live-action remakes of their animated classics, I was as dubious as everyone else. However, Cinderella was a nice surprise last year and now you can add Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book to that list. Favreau’s iteration could end up being one of the best theater experiences of the year. He wonderfully captures the spirit of the original but expertly uses today’s technology to bring to life a familiar story in the most advanced and modern way possible. The animation is astonishing and immerses you into a world that feels completely authentic. The lush jungle engulfs you into a vibrant world of green trees and dusty rocks. And Favreau somehow found English-speaking animals, or I have been fooled because they looked real to me.
All joking aside, the real victory for Favreau was how he was able to masterfully create animal characters that are empathetic and relateable emotionally. The vocal performances are pivotal to that empathy but the animation of the animal’s faces and the way they emote with how they move and react also makes for a more engaging experience.
The vocal talent here is quite remarkable though and is crucial to supplanting the films pathos. Ben Kingsly brings a fatherly wisdom to Bagheera that resonates and transforms throughout the film. Bill Murray is hysterical as Baloo and delivers rich, comedic lines in the way only Murray can do. There is a growth to Baloo and Murray easily keeps pace with that growth, making the character’s action in the climax absolutely delightful. That said, Lupita Nyong’o may be The Jungle Book‘s unsung hero. Nyong’o voices Naksha, the motherly wolf to Mowgli and she is the heart and soul of this story in many ways. She doesn’t quite have as much screen time as Bagheera or Baloo but her lines of dialogue are heartfelt and beautifully exemplify the emotional relatability of this film. On the other end of that spectrum, Idris Elba is haunting and menacing as the voice of Shere Khan, which matches the intimidating animation of the Bengal tiger we see on screen. He is legitimately scary.
The film opens with Mowgli (played by first timer Neel Sethi) running from what seems like something dangerous but just turns out to be Bagheera who is teaching Mowgli how to survive in the jungle. Through narration, Bagheera tells us that after finding Mowgli in the jungle alone, he entrusted him to the wolves, who Bagheera thinks will keep him safe. After a long drought, there is a water-truce among the jungle animals which leads to a gorgeous scene where all the animals meet at a pond where they can all drink in peace. Shere Khan eventually shows up and threatens the wolves to release Mowgli to him or there will be lives to pay. Given this threat, Mowgli decides to leave the pack, which leads him to unknown territory in the jungle. From there he meets Baloo and things change rapidly for Mowgli, and eventually everyone else in the jungle.
While the narrative does capture the spirit of the 1967 animated film, screenwriter Justin Marks treats the material a little more seriously while injecting humor in the right places. The musical numbers are reduced as well but we do hear a few familiar tunes that will bring smiles to fans of the animated film. Favreau’s pacing is a bit quick, which does result in some narrative beats losing depth but overall Favreau establishes this world and it’s laws very well. And the laws do carry weight, which thematically speaks to fascinating notions of honoring the world around you. Even Shere Khan respects the jungle’s laws. He may “bend” them to obtain power and fear but there is a genuine respect for the laws. He’s not the only one either. While having very different motives, Baloo is no stranger to “bending” the rules. Neither is Mowgli, much to the chagrin of Bagheera. Mowgli’s journey of bending the rules also teaches him about identity and overcoming the fear that relationships and the physical world he loves could be destroyed by accepting who he really is. This all leads to a captivating climax where the everything comes together in compelling fashion.
Some of the storytelling may be convenient at times (Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa is a little contrived) and Christopher Walken’s King Louie may break out into a different genre of movie at one point but the film’s emotional undercurrent is so robust that it never feels clumsy. Even the weaker elements of the film resonate on some level or at the very least serve a purpose to the story or it’s characters.
All in all, the effects, the voice acting, the score and Favreu’s vision for the story and themes is remarkably effective in The Jungle Book. It is majestic in it’s own way, making for a poignant family adventure that carries as much heft as it does fun. Whether or not the animation holds up over time, the technology used for this film makes for an unforgettable experience in 2016. And even if the effects fade over time, the ethical values and themes of identity are timeless and gripping to watch.