The fact that Disney is developing live-action adaptations of their animated features may smack of desperation and a lack of originality, but honestly, if said films turn out to be like The Jungle Book, there just may be some worthwhile merit in that plan.
Truth be told, I believe that director Jon Favreau’s latest film is superior to Disney’s overrated 1967 animated flick (memorable only for two of its featured songs and nothing else). First and foremost, it’s actually compelling. Yes, it helps that the film contains some mature content and is thematically resonant, but Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks strengthen the material by improving the characters, particularly the animals. The wolves Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) – no longer throwaway characters – play impactful roles in this narrative, and their relationships with Mowgli (Neel Sethi) feel authentic. Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) is much more respectable here, and Baloo (Bill Murray) turns out to be quite endearing as opposed to his insufferable hand-drawn counterpart. Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) has a reduced role, but it proves to be a great storytelling choice that doesn’t sell the character short. Best of all is Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who’s terrifying from beginning to end. I have to applaud Favreau and Marks for making this film not a carbon copy of the ’67 movie (I’m aware that both are adaptations of Rudyard Kipling’s stories, but from what I’ve read, this film is more so a live-action/CGI remake of the other) but instead a project that stands on its own. Sure, the story is relatively straightforward, but its characters are fairly well-written, and it tackles some complex ideas and themes that unfold confidently.
Injecting personality into this world is a strong cast. Sethi isn’t setting worlds alight here with his physical performance (he’s a bit wooden here and there), but it’s important to keep in mind that during production, he’s acting alongside only blue screens and sets, with nary a fellow performer near him. That being said, he deserves kudos for acting as though the animals are real, which make his interactions with and reactions to them convincing enough. Speaking of which, the voice cast is top-notch. Elba and Murray are the biggest standouts here, as the former drips menace with every word and the latter oozes charisma from Baloo’s easygoing and languid nature. Esposito brings a regal authority to his character, and Nyong’o gracefully hits the maternal notes in her performance. Johansson’s seductive voice suits Kaa to a tee, and Kingsley is best when Bagheera’s emotions get the better of him. Of course, I can’t forget Christopher Walken’s surprising portrayal of King Louie (imagined here as a gigantopithecus), as he builds from the character’s sinister nature to great effect.
Simply put, this is a beautiful-looking picture. If you plan on catching this film in theaters, I cannot recommend enough that you watch it in the IMAX 3-D format, as this will give you the richest cinematic experience that the film has to offer. Seeing this on the largest possible screen enhances the beauty of a strikingly photorealistic world, and the 3-D brings that world to life. There’s a real depth to this jungle, and the third dimension brings forth the dense foliage and quickly conveys the sinking feeling that there’s a beast lurking and watching our subjects somewhere. The animals too are a wonder to behold, moving naturally and boasting astounding, rich details – seriously, look how textured they are. I will say, though, that the one scene that doesn’t work as well as I’d hoped involves King Louie singing “I Wan’na Be Like You” (the inclusion of songs from the ’67 movie doesn’t feel very organic) – he barely blinks while singing, so his eyes are rather static, causing the character to momentarily fail the uncanny valley test.
Speaking as someone who wasn’t anticipating this film in the slightest, I’m surprised at how enjoyable The Jungle Book is. To be honest, I have a feeling that the IMAX 3-D format made my experience a lot better, so I don’t know if I’ll ever watch this again on home media. Looking past that, though, there’s plenty to like with this live-action/CGI adaptation: a compelling narrative, improved characters, a great cast, and visuals galore. Favreau brings all those elements together to create a fun, grand film. Now, whenever I hear the title, I thankfully don’t have to always think of the ’67 movie.
* Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures