Disney’s live-action stabs at rebooting their properties are usually hit or miss, but Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is a home run. Similar to 2015’s Cinderella, this latest interpretation of Rudyard Kipling’s iconic novel series respects both the source material and the more familiar Disney animated movie.
Wonderfully nostalgic yet uniquely distinct, there’s an unmistakable magic in this flawless adventure picture that is destined to be a classic. I hope it will achieve such a status to wipe the lesser 1994 live-action version off the map into obscurity.
The story never tries too hard to appeal to audiences young or old. It’s easy to be invested in the character of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a human boy raised by wolves that desires to be a part of the jungle society. He can understand the colorful characters that make up this world from the parental panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to the easygoing bear Baloo (Bill Murray) to the sinister snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) to the behemoth orangutan King Louie (Christopher Walken) to the darkly-conspiring tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba).
Though he can read their language, Mowgli struggles to read their motives. Some want to protect him, some want to kill him and others just want to use him for the powers of fire. All the while Mowgli finds himself questioning where he belongs in nature and if he should leave the jungle.
With the majority of the cast being animal characters, the key for such a picture lies in the visual effects. If you can’t buy that Mowgli is interacting with real bears and panthers, the illusion is broken. At the same time, you don’t want the animals to be too realistic as they have to speak and eventually sing a song or two.
I’m proud to report that the stellar visual effects artists behind this picture have managed to create that perfect depiction of Kipling’s fantastic world. The jungle and its creatures exist in an almost dreamlike state of wonder as though you could step into its world to rest on Baloo’s chest or dash across trees alongside wolves.
Inspiration for the style of the picture comes from many sources, but the original animated movie is acknowledged in this version. Two of the songs are carried over: Baloo’s “Bear Necessities” and King Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You.” More surprising than how well these songs mesh into the tone of the story is how brilliantly they’re sung by Bill Murray and Christopher Walken. With such recognizable comedic voices, the mere mention of them singing most likely conjures up smirks with the expectation of them hamming up the numbers. Yes, believe it or not, Walken does a stellar job at singing “I Wanna Be Like You” without the expected pauses of his speech mannerisms.
The collective cast of animal-voicing actors doesn’t feel out of place in that they are presented with a great deal of wonder and detail. You may not take King Louie seriously as a threat if he were a regular-sized orangutan, but appearing as a giant that eats handfuls of bananas like peanuts in the darkness of a temple makes him a little more terrifying. Mowgli’s escape from Louie’s kingdom is an incredibly exciting feat as he dashes through tight tunnels with Louie’s large hands reaching through the cracks to snatch him.
While escaping the clutches of Shere Khan, Mowgli zips through a field with a following pack of beasts nearly stomping over him. Even the opening scene of Mowgli practicing his agility with Bagheera quickly dazzles the eyes and makes the heart race. For a movie with an abundance of chase scenes, they rarely feel repetitive or tired in how they’re shot. While the script respects the books, the cinematography is practically an ode to the energy and visuals of Tarzan.
The 1961 animated adaptation still holds a special place in my heart for being one of the last animated films under Walt Disney’s eye and containing its own special charm. But Favreau’s version represents something more – a sense of grand adventure and deeper themes to go along with its musical fun. I found myself so amazed by its visual effects, straight storytelling and spot-on casting. If a grown man such as I was on the edge of my seat, I can only imagine how kids are going to react to such a picture.
It’ll be very interesting to see in a few decades how this generation looks back on such a picture. My hope is that it’ll be regarded with the same resonance as Star Wars or E.T. – something truly special that can and should be shared with generations to come.