To those who still hold any degree of skepticism for Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book—Disney’s live-action adaptation of the Rudyard Kiplingclassic—I say just sing along to “Forget about your worries and your strife…” That’s a guaranteed earworm from this really good film. Complete with splendid sound design and flabbergasting CGI wizardry, director Favreau, with cinematographer Bill Pope, deftly crafts this spectacle not only to dazzle viewers but also to enhance its dramatic agenda.
Those who have seen the original 1967 film, the Disney-animated series, or have read Kipling’s classic already know the basic plot: Orphaned Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is found in the jungle by the black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and raised by a pack of wolves led by Akela (Giancarlo Eposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), who nurtures him as if he was hers, aptly referring to Mowgli as her “man-cub”. When the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) learns of Mowgli’s existence, he threatens his life, emphasizing that a man-cub becomes a man, and man is forbidden to co-exist with animals. Fearing for the safety of the pack, Mowgli decides to leave his family and is escorted by Bagheera to return to the “man-village.” Across the jungle’s increasingly inhospitable terrain, Mowgli encounters the hypnotizing python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the honey-obsessed bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and the overgrown orangutan King Louie (Christoper Walken), who wants to possess the “red flower” (us humans call it ‘fire’) to advance himself to the top of the jungle’s evolutionary ladder.
With an excellent voice cast, The Jungle Book presents a colorful array of memorable characters. Idris Elba as Shere Kahn is chillingly formidable with his guttural threats. Ben Kingsley brings nobility and wisdom in the sleek jungle cat Bagheera. In her short sequence as the python Kaa, Scarlett Johansson delivers the film’s backstory with a magnetic voice. Giancarlo Eposito’s Akela and Lupita Nyong’o’s Raksha supply the fierce patriarch and protective maternal vibes needed by their characters. Christopher Walken as the mafia-king orangutan waiting for extinction is an oddly delightful sight, especially when he starts to sing. Bill Murray as the manipulative sloth bear Baloo is a crowd favorite as he blurs the line between being annoying and adorable. Even the lesser animals (porcupine, pygmy hog, squirrel, etc.) manage to steal the show as sources of comic relief.
In his first feature appearance, Neel Sethi as young Mowgli is tasked with selling the wonder and portraying the humanity of this tale. Considering that he is basically working within the confines of his imagination and a green screen room for the entire film, he manages to make everything believable: the beauty and danger of the jungle, his kinetic and charismatic character, and his deep connection with the animals. Of course, this is owed in large part to Jon Favreau’s direction’s too. A magical scene in the film (and my favorite!): an infant Mowgli and Bagheera’s innocently touches Bagheera’s face. It’s a sweet moment, a reminder that the there’s a seed of humanity in each of us.
The film is shot entirely in a studio in Downtown Los Angeles (here’s the b-roll as proof!), indeed a praiseworthy feat seeing the world the filmmakers were able to build. There’s no going around it: the visual effects team really delivered an outstanding job on this one. As a viewer you reach an impasse thinking which is fake and which isn’t. As such, you ask yourself: can The Jungle Book be considered still a live-action film when ninety percent of it is CGI?
Although the film comes a bit dark, fans are not robbed of iconic songs such as “The Bare Necessities”, “I Wanna Be Like You,” and a jovial musical scoring for the film (thanks to John Debney). Old as it may, the story of The Jungle Book remains an affecting contemplation on the virtues of family, self-growth, and man’s progress at the expense of nature. It is immersive, it is enchanting, and it is wonderful.