Disney’s massive blockbuster reboot of The Jungle Book really shouldn’t have worked. After all, their recent attempts to remake animated classics in live action have been tiresome at best, and they already did a live action Jungle Book reboot in the 90’s that was so disappointing you didn’t even remember it until I mentioned it. Yet somehow, not only is the film the best of their current “in with the old” Disney recycling projects, but it’s currently the best blockbuster on screens right now, period. Somehow, Jon Favreau found a way to mix the goofy charm of the 1967 animated adaptation, the dark adventure of the original source material, and a dash of Spielberg wonderment into a gorgeous package that succeeds on pretty much every level. I’m not sure how he pulled it off, but I am sure that after this, Favreau’s got to be considered one of the best blockbuster directors around, and not just an enjoyably quirky outlier.
So, the story is pretty much the same. Youngster Neel Sethi headlines as Mowgli, the young boy who was raised by wolves (yet inexplicably decided that he needed a loin cloth). He’s a happy part of the pack though, with a loving mother (Lupita Nyong’o) to guide him and a mentor panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to look out for him. Unfortunately, there’s this big, jerk of a tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba, cast just as perfectly as it sounds) out there who hates humans. In fact, he demands that the wolf pack give over Mowgli to him for some good old fashioned kiddie eating. Bagheera doesn’t care for that idea, so he sneaks Mowgli out of the wolfpack and into the jungle. The destination is a human village, the journey is an adventure, and it’s all one big episodic parable about growing up. Plus, you’ll get to see the seductive snake, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the goof-off singing bear Baloo (Bill Murray, naturally), and the ambitious orangutan King Louie (here played by Christopher Walken, which might sound like a weird choice, but it’s kind of brilliant). Yep, it’s the Jungle Book alright, only with less songs and more adventure. Holy crap does it ever work well.
First things first. As a technical achievement, The Jungle Book is absolutely remarkable. Despite being animated entirely in a computer, the titular jungle is a vivid creation all too easy to lose yourself in as a viewer. It’s rich and full and coloured with seemingly limitless depth enhanced beautifully by 3D. The talking animals are themselves rather special creations. They’re created with naturalistic accuracy, yet speak and emote like people in a way that feels completely right. It’s not easy to make talking animals feel special again. Somehow these effects wizards pulled it off. It helps immensely that Favreau shot the movie from ground level (well, for the most part) and limited his digital camera moves to shots that would at least theoretically be possible in the real world. The film is shot with a Spielbergian sense of wonder, pulling the audience in and making them feel gobsmacked by digital creations in a way that’s much harder to achieve than it seems.
It helps immensely that Favreau assembled a pitch perfect cast to voice his CG creations. Whether it be Kingsley’s stately and honourable panther or Scarlett Johansson’s hypnotically seductive snake, there are clearly very human performances beneath the effects that bring them so vividly to life. The three major standouts are Idris Elba’s genuinely frightening Shere Khan (don’t be surprised if he’s too much for some children), Bill Murray’s hysterical, slacker-philosopher Baloo, and Christopher Walken’s mafia-don infused King Louie. Each takes a character already iconic in the Disney landscape and imparts them with their own distinct personas in a manner that reinvents them all as something fresh and endearing. At the center, Neel Sethi does admirable work for such an inexperienced young actor and nails all of his biggest and most important scenes. Unfortunately, there are times when the kid seems a bit dwarfed by the effects and lost in the green screen magic box, but never to the extent that it completely spoils the surroundings. It’s just an unfortunate reality that occasionally, the only completely human element on screen is the least lifelike.
Jon Favreau’s blockbuster reboot of The Jungle Book is an quite the impressive achievement. It’s infinitely better than anyone could have expected and may well go down as one of the finest blockbusters of the year even though the season has barely begun. Sure, the episodic film can feel a bit structurally lumpy and the meaning often gets lost in the spectacle. However, by the frequently disappointing standards of this particular brand of blockbuster filmmaking, there’s no denying that The Jungle Book is an unexpected success. Once again, Jon Favreau has proved himself to be the most unassuming of tentpole filmmakers. It’s getting to the point now that the only surprise when he hits one of these things out of the park is the fact that it’s taken for granted. He’s become one of the best filmmakers working on this scale rather quietly, and through established properties that aren’t his own. Hopefully sometime soon he’ll be able to launch his own, personal blockbuster without a “based on” credit. He’s gotten very good at what he does. It would be exciting to see what he’s capable of with his imagination allowed to run wild.