From the second the lights go all the way down after the trailers are over and the theater’s “Feature Presentation” bumper has played, we’re brought into a world of nostalgia by Disney’s current logo having undergone a facelift. Well, it’s really a reverse-facelift; the 10-year-old, computer-animated, firework-laden Cinderella Castle opening has been entirely redone to look like hand-drawn animation. This both sets up and sums up director Jon Favreau’s version of The Jungle Book, stating boldly “everything old is new again.”
Favreau shoots us through jungle trees and vegetation in vivid computer-generated 3D, making his version more kinetic than the 1994 live-action Walt Disney Pictures adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s stories. Yet he also makes sure to visually remind us well of the beloved 1967 animated adaptation, from which Favreau’s movie largely takes its cues. Scenery is reproduced almost entirely frame-for-frame in loving homage to the childhood favorite of adults who will wind up taking their kids and grandkids to see it, making sure everyone will find something to enjoy with this remake.
One of Favreau’s biggest gambles is trusting 12-year-old (probably 11 at the time of filming) newcomer Neel Sethi to anchor the film as Mowgli, the man-cub raised by wolves after having been separated from his father (Ritesh Rijan) as a baby. His trust is well-rewarded, as Sethi admirably emotes the confusion, the excitement, the danger, and the wonder of being a boy unlike any we’ve seen before. This is Sethi’s second feature film; being a newcomer works well to his advantage, as there’s a great playfulness in his performance that would elude more established child actors.
Surrounding Sethi is a talented voice cast and technical crew uniformly engaged in showcasing the action sensibility Favreau so richly displayed as the director of the first two Iron Man films. This version of The Jungle Book is as action-oriented as they come, putting Mowgli in situations which would cause most of us to curl into the fetal position. From dodging Shere Khan (a delightfully evil Idris Elba), a tiger with a major vendetta against Mowgli, to dangling from vines to knock honeycombs off a high ledge for new friend Baloo (Bill Murray), to leading the fight against Shere Khan in a burning forest, Favreau keeps the intensity pitched high and thankfully sustains it well. The film’s opening scene takes us on a whirlwind of stunts as we run through the jungle alongside Mowgli and the wolves; Bill Pope’s energetic cinematography (he also lensed Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, which these opening scenes will no doubt bring to mind) and the vivid computer animation sets our expectations and almost dares them to be let down. Which, thankfully, the film doesn’t.
As one of the last lines of the credits states, The Jungle Book was “Filmed Entirely in Downtown Hollywood,” but great pains are taken to make it look as natural as possible. The visuals are astounding, with the animators’ efforts resulting in realistic environments, valleys, ravines, and woodland creatures seamlessly intertwining with practical sets and Sethi, who is (for all intents and purposes) the only live actor we see during the film’s duration. Of course, there are moments when scenes will look obviously unrealistic, as any other CGI-driven movie does, but the crew deserves praise for making the majority of the film look as lifelike in every way.
The Jungle Book’s other standouts are the cast supporting Sethi. Bill Murray is cast perfectly as the honey-hunting, good-time-Charlie, yet very loyal and friendly bear Baloo. No other modern actor could possibly pull off the lackadaisical whimsy of this character with such familiar believability. Murray has always had a way of straddling the line between flippant and serious, and he brings that nuance to Baloo with his usual gusto. Countering him as the voice of reason and practicality is Ben Kingsley, playing panther Bagheera as Mowgli’s conscience – a comforting, gravelly-voiced Jiminy Cricket to Mowgli’s Pinocchio (an odd parallel I, for some reason, only now realized while writing this), if you will.
Pulling Mowgli in the opposite direction are python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), an Indian python with hypnotic eyes and a temptress’ voice; and King Louis (Christopher Walken), a boisterous giant ape hoping to gain the power and knowledge of fire from Mowgli. Walken plays it the way you’d expect him to with his usual entertaining delivery, and he also gets a very satisfying turn at singing “I Wan’na Be Like You.” But none are as dangerous as Shere Khan, whom Idris Elba gives voice to with daggers and poison. He breathes evil life into Shere Khan, a tiger with battle scars and major baggage. His attack scenes may be too frightening for younger viewers and may honestly make older viewers like me jump out of their seats (we saw it in IMAX 3D – don’t judge!). The computer animation team may have made him look scary, but Elba truly makes him horrifying.
In the intervening years between when I saw the 1967 version in grade school (for the first and last time – yes, I know, I have failed as a parent, but it has since been remedied) and the screening of this new version, I was unaware of any driving symbolism inherent in the story before having a discussion with a fellow critic’s husband. He brought up how the books were meant to represent India’s growth and questioning whether the British Raj were truly necessary in the 1800s; with this in mind, I can’t say this weight was brought to bear upon Favreau’s work. However, this version of The Jungle Book is an action-packed film of surprise and wonder, as intense as a parkour free-run, and gifted with strong morals and a great story. Stick around for Johansson’s haunting rendition of “Trust in Me (The Python’s Song)” during the credits.