The Jungle Book (2016)
dir. Jon Favreau
written by: Justin Marks
starring: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Giancarlo Esposito, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken
3.25 out of 4 stars
One of my first reviews was for Kenneth Branagh’s live action Cinderella. That beautiful but uninventive movie produced excellent Sandy Powell Oscar bait, a more charming than usual prince, and Cate Blanchett looking fabulous in hats. From a modern Shakespearean master director and an Oscar nominated screenwriter, we received a very traditional retelling of the Disney classic. They were not trying to reinvent the story; they wound up creating exactly what moviegoers wanted: something pretty at which to marvel. For this year’s classic animation rehash, we have received a superhero director’s retelling of The Jungle Book, additionally based on the Rudyard Kipling tales.
After tackling the first two Iron Man movies and finding indie success triple threatening in Chef (writer, director and actor), Jon Favreau returns to blockbuster visual stunner The Jungle Book. For any of those unfamiliar with the often told story, Mowgli, a human boy raised by wolves, has encountered a period of unrest among the leaders of the jungle. Shere Khan, the alpha tiger of the area, threatens that without the removal of the human from his land, he will have no choice but to wage war against those who protect him. Fearing the worst, Mowgli leaves his wolf parents Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and Akeela (Giancarlo Esposito) with his guardian panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley, such a startlingly vibrant voice) to avoid an impending disruption. Along the way, Mowgli’s journey is filled with a mischievous snake (Scarlett Johannson, always spot on with her voice performances), a helpful bear (Bill Murray), and a power hungry mega orangutan (a surprisingly appropriate Christopher Walken). The adventures keep coming while the young boy attempts to protect the only family he has known.
Favreau knows action, and the effects budget has exploded for this spectacle. Moving at a rapid, kid friendly pace, the director keeps the momentum and the jumps lively without diminishing the beloved story. The action scenes are spectacular. Bagheera and Shere Khan facing off is almost as stressful as Leonardo DiCaprio and Judy the Bear’s one-sided brawl, and that’s without the gore at which to cringe. Every character is painstakingly animated. Realistic fur, movement perfectly constructed, and closeups that make you question if this animal is real or not lead me to believe we will see The Jungle Book as a popular choice in the Visual Effects race next winter. The sounds are all encompassing, with various species going to battle and meandering through their jungle lives, so I would not be surprised to see moderate citation in those fields as well. Throw in Academy love for detailed CGI nature backdrops (Avatar, Life of Pi) and we might see quite to awards profile for this lovely blockbuster.
The voice acting also took no stops. Bill Murray is a perfect Baloo, light hearted and a bit tricky; he is Yogi Bear with much bigger teeth. Johannsson and Walken each play exceptionally menacing characters with far too little screen time. Menacing and unsettling, a future revival of their characters in the already announced sequel would be very welcomed. As usual, Idris Elba, playing the scarred Shere Khan, steals the show. His deep voice–any of the terrifying ones he can do–echoes in your bones. Easily overtaking the entire animalverse of the movie, Elba can hold attention over all of the other actors. Impressive position for a character done many times before.
Young star Neel Sethi is an impressive Mowgli. Having performed only in one short film prior to this starring role, Sethi commands a strong presence for such a small actor. Rarely a glimpse of acting is found on a very natural young actor, particularly with no real scenery or actors to play alongside the sole human character in the movie. His delivery runs from fierce to friendly to fun, and his physicality is befitting of the wild boy he is portraying. Thankfully, cultural appropriation was not a factor in this film’s production, another strong positive in Favreau’s favor.
Though lacking in originality, this fascinating rendition expands to a previously unventured realm of visual effects artistry for the animal based cast. Next year, Andy Serkis plans to bring another interpretation from his production company, so we see no chance of this public domain story going quiet. Prepare to feel the roars and to become engrossed in this engaging film. Thankfully we have the beauty and the substance before we are berated by the onslaught of late spring visual vomitoriums from Snow White and Alice in the coming weeks.