There is only one way to describe Disney’s new version of The Jungle Book – a simply sumptuous visual delight. The CGI is so amazingly woven into the texture of the film that it is never detectable. Seeing it in 3D is well worth your extra cash to allow you to savor more fully the beauty of this jungle world. During every moment of the delectable 105-minute run time, the words “green screen” will never enter your mind.
Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and screenwriter Justin Marks have taken great care in getting the beloved Rudyard Kipling story right. In doing so they have kept the essence of the book but have left the animated film far behind with breathtaking moments reminiscent of other great Disney films like The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as well as a climactic battle sequence that borrows shamelessly from the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Predator.
No time is wasted as our protagonist Mowgli (wonderful young newcomer Neel Sethi) literally hits the ground running in his training under the careful eye of black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) as he races through the jungle with his wolf cub brothers. Through Bagheera’s voice-over we learn how Mowglii was raised by wolf mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and father Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). Though Mowgli is a human boy, he is accepted as part of the pack and by other animals in the jungle as well.
Having seen the 1967 Disney film as a kid and recalling my fear of villain Shere Khan, I was hoping that my son would have a similar experience; however, this Shere Khan (Idris Elba) makes the old animated one look like a choir boy. The fierce tiger is a loathsome killer who, even when recognizing the law of a “low water truce” still threatens everyone at the watering hole. Needless to say my son was shaken by Khan’s ruthlessness throughout the movie.
Favreau makes Khan one of the most intimidating villains in recent films, with his cunning wit on display one moment and his merciless fury leading to vicious murder the next. We understand the hatred the tiger has for the man-cub because a human once burned his face with a torch (we later learn that it was Mowgli’s human father), and he will stop at nothing until Mowgli is dead.
This is when Bagheera warns the boy to run away and get to the human village he has shown him. Of course, once on the run Mowgli will have the expected run-ins with sinister snake Kaa (Scarlett Johanson), Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), and the apes and their King Louie (a scary but hilarious Christopher Walken), who more than subsumes any memories we may have had of the animated Louie with a much more ominous tone.
Baloo exploits Mowgli’s skills for his own purposes, allowing the boy to get stung by bees many times in order to procure him honey from the side of a cliff. When Mowgli is in the clutches of the apes, Louie is as vile a creep as we would expect any Walken character to be. It takes a few moments, but then you start thinking that Favreau must have let Walken ad-lib some of his lines because of the way they are delivered, making Louie the best gangster ape in the jungle.
Cinematographer Bill Pope’s lush landscapes and luminous inner jungle shots, the musical score by John Debney, and the motion capture magic displayed throughout that makes these anthropomorphic animal characters speak and move perfectly highlight the depth of care taken to make this film look, feel, and sound like the masterpiece that it is.
Oh, and in case you are wondering, Mowgli and Baloo do get to sing “Bare Necessities” (my son would have been disappointed if it had not been included), but here it is an entirely different experience as Baloo floats on his back with Mowgli sitting atop of him. While in the animated film it was a moment of comic relief similar to Simba, Timon, and Pumba singing “Hakuna Matata” in The Lion King, here there is no escaping the sense of danger that lurks around every corner and hides behind every tree.
Two of the more memorable scenes in the film involve Shere Kahn playing a scary game with Raksha’s wolf cubs and when Bagheera and Mowgli encounter an elephant march in the jungle. In one the tiger toys with cubs but does not disguise his threat to crush them; the other reveals a mystical moment when Bagheera tells Mowgli to bow in respect to the giant regal creatures as they pass. In both cases we witness what this jungle world can be – either the most frightening or beautiful place depending on the circumstances.
Not enough can be said about the acting chops revealed by young Sethi. Clearly a talented and gifted young actor, his reactions and dialogue are completely natural and never belie the actuality that he is playing all his scenes in front of a green screen. While Shere Khan’s presence infuses the story with more than enough fear and dread, it is Sethi’s remarkable performance as Mowgli that is essential to making the whole film come together.
Favreau makes the most of everything at his disposal to bring to life Kipling’s tale of a man-cub who, while caught between two worlds, finds that though he is human that his place may very well be alongside those animals he has grown up with and loves, a place where the bare necessities seem more than enough.
Photo credits: movies.disney.com