The Jungle Book adds incredible visuals to the bare necessities.
The Jungle Book (the book) was written by Rudyard Kipling as a collection of stories in 1894. They featured anthropomorphic animals, with a few of the stories revolving around a young “man cub” named Mowgli. Audiences are probably most familiar with the 1967 Disney animated adaptation — a jolly musical featuring the iconic songs “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You.” With Disney’s recent string of reviving their classic animated films into live action (with a lot of integrated CGI), the aim seems to be to incorporate characteristics of the original written works. In Jon Favreau’s (Elf, Iron Man, Chef) new directorial effort, The Jungle Book does indeed blend the darker aspects of Kipling’s original writings with the playful jubilee of the animated version. Because of this, the shifting tones can be a little off balance. However, The Jungle Book is a thoroughly engrossing adventure, with benchmark visuals and stellar voice work.
Let’s begin by quickly touching upon the few less-than-stellar aspects of The Jungle Book. It’s always a tall order to center a film around a child actor, especially a newcomer. Neel Sethi is the latter, and while credit is due to Favreau and the producers for casting an Indian actor, his inexperience shows across the board as he tries too hard to look sad or happy and his lines are delivered flat. But Sethi is serviceable, and he plays second fiddle anyway to the animals around him. The other ‘area for improvement’ I want to discuss, and I use that phrase because there’s already a Jungle Book 2 in the works, is the shifting tone. The Jungle Book is campy silly at times, and super dark and scary at other times. The aforementioned songs from the 1967 Disney film make a startling appearance, with “I Wan’na Be Like You” particularly out of place. But the shifting tones and Sethi’s performance, while both a bit jarring, don’t come close to diminishing the amazing achievements in visuals and overall adventurous spirit of the film.
The filmmakers rounded up a stellar cast to lend their voices to the animals: Sir Ben Kingsley as the panther Bagheera, Bill Murray as the lovable bear Baloo, Lupita Nyong’o as Mowgli’s adopted mother wolf Raksha, Scarlett Johansson as the sly snake Kaa, Christopher Walken as the commanding ape King Louie, and Idris Elba as the villainous tiger Shere Khan. Yes, I saved the best for last. Elba delivers an impeccable vocal performance as the terrifying, imposing, and scene-stealing tiger. Shere Khan is menacing to a ridiculous degree, with his confidently dangerous presence, sharply threatening dialogue, and overbearing stature making him one of the more terrifying villains on screen in quite a while. I mean that.
The jungle environments are wonderful to behold and the action is exciting and easy to follow, which isn’t a surprise when action genre superstar cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix, Spider-Man 2) is controlling the lens. This is also one of the few films in which 3D adds to the experience. Bear snouts protrude from the screen, animals leap in and out of frame, and the depth of foliage and lush (or vast) terrain is gorgeously rendered. The 3D takes you one step closer to the action on screen, and it’s very rewarding. Not since The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe has a large cast of talking animals been so seamlessly integrated (not including The Revenant) into real environments and with real actor(s). Only in a few instances involving an army of monkeys did the animation look a tiny bit silly, but for the most part it looked amazing.
Kipling’s Jungle Book was an exotic adventure at the time it was written, focusing on the far off world of the jungles of India. While the locale may not be as mysterious or foreign to much of the world as it was at the turn of the 20th century, there’s enough fantastical elements present in the new The Jungle Book to keep viewers engrossed. My eyes were constantly exploring every inch of the screen (which is fully utilized) and yours will too. As Kaa would say, trust in me.
The Jungle Book opens in theaters Friday, April 15th.