Directed by: Jon Favreau
Cast: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito.
If you’re looking for the bare necessities in your Disney live-action remakes – some familiar characters, some fun and adventure, a little song and dance – then their latest effort in The Jungle Book might just be what we’ve been looking for. Yes sir, if you loved the kooky, jazz-ridden animated feature of 1967, then you’ll find something to enjoy here as director Jon Favreau aptly brings Rudyard Kipling’s children’s classic back to life. Along with the return of the story’s iconic characters – with a fun and astutely selected voice cast – The Jungle Book offers a wholly immersive and jaw-dropping visual experience that raises the bar in cgi technology with some truly unbelievable photorealism.
Favreau keeps things simple in terms of story, staying true to it’s animated predecessor, and whilst bringing an indisputable sense of realism to this fantastical story, he manages to find that same sense of fun that we should be finding in all of these remakes. We follow Mowgli (Neel Sethi) – an orphan raised in the jungle by a pack of wolves – as he journeys back to the man village after Shere Khan the tiger (Idris Elba), threatens to kill him and all those who attempt to protect him. Guided by the panther, Bagheera (Ben Kingley), the two trek through the jungle, stumbling across an array of characters, including Kaa the snake (Scarlett Johansson), a Gigantopithicus known as Louie (Christopher Walken) and, of course, a honey-loving bear named Baloo (Bill Murray). You won’t find many liberties taken with the story that we’re all so familiar with, if anything Favreau follows it note for note, whist occasionally honing in on some themes and expanding on some characters (though the elephants are given little to do), most notably with the wolves as they play a much larger role here. And, yes, we even get the two classic songs that made The Jungle Book so memorable in the first place – a tongue-in-cheek rendition of “The Bare Necessities” and a more funny than fun version of “I Wan’Na Be Like You”.
The biggest success with this movie is, without question, the visual effects. This is truly some of the finest visual work to date. For a majority of the movie I just found myself in awe of the stunning landscape and the incredibly realistic animals – their fur, their mouths, their mannerisms, the way they move in and out of the light – it’s totally mindblowing. Everything living, walking, crawling… slithering… every detail is so impeccably done you soon forget you’re watching cgi and instead have to remind yourself of the fact. It’s uncanny. Further praise should be given for the realism and believability still achieved when the animals speak, it works perfectly and all the more so with the cast.
This does in fact bring me to the sore thumb in the movie, and that is Mowgli. I’ll start by saying for any actor, child or otherwise, that pulling off a lead performance in an all computer-generated environment with computer-generated characters should be commended in itself, especially for a newcomer like Sethi. And to that extent, he pulls it off. However, a lot of the time when he’s delivering lines it’s all very one-noted and it eventually just gets irritating, and that could also be faulted in the dialogue, which does occasionally leave a little to be desired. As I say, it still works, and as with the animated film, it’s really the animals that we care about in this story, and in that regard the film is successful. Kingsley is as good as you’d expect, Walken goes from king to the Godfather of the jungle with Louie (and you really can’t help but laugh at his song, but whatever, it’s fun), and ScarJo is both alluring and terrifying, though rather underused as Kaa. Murray makes Baloo his own by, well, making him Bill Murray. The show really belongs to Idris Elba, however, as the villainous Shere Khan. Along with the incredible visuals where you can actually sense the weight and power of this formidable animal, Elba adds a smooth cool and intense ferocity to the tiger that delivers a sense of dread with every scene in which he appears. The face-off between him and Baloo is as intense as you’d hope with visuals of this quality.
Overall, The Jungle Book entertains, showing off its’ visual prowess and a purposely placed sense of nostalgia – shamelessly throwing in the songs to appease the fans, even if it doesn’t feel totally organic for this heightened realism approach. The voice cast is quite inspired, and it makes me rather eager to see what Andy Serkis and his equally intriguing cast does with the material for Warner Bros. in two years time. Though it offers little in innovation for the story and certain plot developments feel questionable at times, The Jungle Book feels untampered and familiar unlike so many of the fairy tale remakes being thrown our way these days, and even if it feels too familiar, the visual majesty onscreen alone will be enough to hold your attention.