8 out of 10
Neel Sethi as Mowgli
Directed by Jon Favreau
The Jungle Book Review:
While this latest iteration of the film version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is full of the latest in CGI spectacle, it is refreshingly old-fashioned in its storytelling. The Jungle Book has more charm and whimsy in it than most blockbusters of its kind, and while the film can go to some dark places and isn’t afraid to ramp up the intensity when it needs to, director Jon Favreau does something fairly remarkable – he puts much of the weight of the power of the story squarely on the shoulders of child actor Neel Sethi as Mowgli, and darn if the little guy doesn’t pull it off with grace, wit, and wonder. It is through his skills as a performer that we believe the fantasy of what we are seeing, and after a few moments, we do not even question that Rudyard Kipling’s jungle is a real place, with real animals that Sethi plays against. The effects are astonishing and immersive (the end credits list the shooting location as downtown Los Angeles, which is both hilarious, and odd, considering the vistas created here), but not intrusive; when Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) speaks and begins this story, the audience is utterly transported.
And while The Jungle Book obviously pulls directly from the classic 1967 animated cartoon, it still feels fresh and inviting. There are many throwbacks (including musical numbers!) and pieces of dialogue, but the sense of reality is absolute. This is classic adventure story stuff, but Jon Favreau never forgets to make the audience care, and to share in the rich emotions on display. The technical achievements of The Jungle Book are made all the more impressive because of it – this isn’t paint-by-numbers, but full of wonder and imagination, and the special effects serve a higher purpose than simple amazement. It’s incredible to realize that nothing we see on screen is real in the traditional sense; these pixels and bits of data are given spirit and soul, and respect must be paid to the teams of animators that bring this jungle, and these characters, to life. There is a tactile weight to these characters – to the graceful, quiet Bagheera, and the noble, maternal Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), to the clever buffoonery of Baloo (Bill Murray) and the dangerous, silky grace of Shere Khan (Idris Elba). Through this menagerie of creatures, Mowgli co-exists, a man-cub saved from certain death to live in the jungle among the wolfpack, led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). But Shere Khan will have his revenge against Mowgli and his kind, and so Mowgli must leave the safety of his home, with unknown dangers ahead of him.
Justin Marks’ script recalls the cartoon, but also has its own voice and rhythm, and all the voice actors do marvelous work, especially Bill Murray. It just wouldn’t be right if Murray’s Baloo didn’t sing the classic “Bare Necessities,” and both Murray and Sethi give it vigor, humor, and love. Not all the musical numbers of the original cartoon are here (Kaa’s (Scarlet Johansson) “Trust In Me” moment isn’t musical, although she sings it during the end credits), but the best ones are. Christopher Walken as King Louie, a giant orangutan singing “I Wanna Be Like You,” must be seen to be believed, but while it’s whimsical and silly, it also works. Idris Elba gives Shere Khan a formidable personality, and Kingsley’s Bagheera is wise, but caring, resolute to do what is right even though it could cost him.
Through it all, Neel Sethi manages to make everything feel real and wondrous. This is one of the best child performances in quite some time – Mowgli is brave, but stubborn, full of tricks but also heart, fiercely loyal, smart, and loving. None of this would work if not for him, and Sethi has a physical presence and an agility that brings Mowgli to life.
Some of the choices that Favreau and Marks make here may shock purists to the story, especially fans of Kipling’s novel, but they fit with the tone of the story and the themes that resonate here. There are moments of intensity that may disturb younger children, but they also fit with the story that Favreau and Marks are telling, and they fill the jungle, rightfully, with a sense of danger. Most children will be able to handle it, but the climactic moments towards the end are heightened and scary. While the 3D can be quite good, there are also many moments that take place at night and in gloom, so a very bright screen is recommended if audiences plan to see it that way. The screening I attended could have been much brighter, and there were moments that were difficult to see because of it. Discerning audiences should take note.
The Jungle Book is entertaining and satisfying that some of the best family films can be. This isn’t any cynical cash grab for fans of the original animated film – Jon Favreau and Justin Marks, along with cinematographer Bill Pope and composer John Debney bring this world to life in a way that really hasn’t been done before. Favreau seems to have found his footing as a director again, almost as if the smaller intimacies of Chef centered him and gave him focus. This jungle feels like a real place, because it is populated with living, breathing characters that are full of life, individuality, and beauty. Even with all the new-fangled, cutting edge technology, this feels like a movie they don’t really make anymore. There is real magic in it, real optimism, and real joy. Other blockbusters may have the visuals, but they do not have the emotion that The Jungle Book has, and it is that power that makes films classics. Those are the films that endure in the hearts of audiences everywhere, and The Jungle Book is no exception.