As my wife said when we were leaving The Jungle Book, “That was a lot better than I was expecting it to be.”
She’s right. Jon Favreau’s entry in Disney’s campaign of remaking its classic animation titles as CGI heavy live action films is a solid little adventure story starring talking animals, denying me the opportunity to use the line I had prepared for this review: "More like BUNGLE Book, amirite?"
Mowgli (Neel Sethi, in his feature debut) is one of only two real humans onscreen. His co-stars are a menagerie of CGI animals that constitutes the film’s biggest achievement.The computer generated animation and backgrounds on display here are astonishing. The animators get all of the little things right, like the ripple of a wolf’s fur or the quiver of a porcupine’s quills, making this one of the visually best CGI driven films since Avatar
We meet Mowgli, the foundling raised by a his wolf mother Rakasha (Lupita Nyong’o) , as he’s trying to run with the pack. Try as he might, he can’t keep up, but alpha wolf Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) encourages him to keep trying. A drought brings all the animals of the jungle together in a water truce, where they promise not to eat each other while gathered around the last pond of drinkable water. It’s here that that Shere Khan (Idirs Elba) first sees Mowgli. Shrere Khan carries scars inflicted by a human wielding the “red flower” of fire, and Mowgli becomes the focus of his grudge. The angry tiger threatens the wolf pack if they don’t turn over Mowgli, forcing the boy on a dangerous jungle sojourn with Bagheera (Ben Kinglsey) the black panther as his guide. His ultimate goal is to make it to the human village, but Mowgli is unsure if he really wants to go, leaving him trapped between worlds.
The voice cast are all quite good, led by America’s spirit animal Bill Murray as jovial slacker bear Baloo, and including Scarlett Johansson as the hypnotic python Kaa and the recently departed Gary Shandling as Ikki the porcupine. Favreau and company devise a series of cleanly executed set pieces to put Mowgli in peril as he navigates through the dangerous jungle.
Favreau’s Jungle Book
is visually lush an innovative, but you know what else was visually lush? The 1966 animated version of The Jungle Book,
the last film Walt Disney worked on before his death. That version sanded some of the rough edges off of Rudyard Kipling’s colonialist source material and imbibed the characters with life using some of the best songs in the Disney canon. Orangutan King Louis, played in 1966 by Louis Prima, flirted with racial caricature, but his version of “I Want To Be Like You” is a heavy bopping freight train of a song. Favreau turns the colonialist overtones way down by casing Christopher Walken as King Louis and referencing Brando’s performance in Apocalypse Now
, and Walken delivers an adequate take on the song, but not fine enough to erase the memory of the original. Along with “Bear Necessities”, it’s one of only two songs to make it into this version, and that’s the problem in a nutshell. Disney wants to make some kind of lightly gritty reboot of The Jungle Book
that will appeal to the hypothetical kids today, but also channel the spirit of the original, but in trying to thread the needle, Favreau takes a middle path that fully satisfies on neither level. The Jungle Book
is not quite as inessential as last year’s Cinderella,
but ultimately it still fails to justify its own existence.