For some, The Jungle Book is a collection of darker-themed fables that tell life lessons. For others it’s the classic Disney-animated musical from 1967, the last film Walt Disney himself worked on. Now, it’s an incredible live-action film that finds a perfect bridge between those two. However, don’t be fooled — this take helmed by Jon Favreau has struck out and stands on its own two feet. Favreau has shown a great understanding and care for the original story, paid his homages and taken influences from the original film, even pulling from a few other artists to make this film a solid piece.
I was skeptical for a long time about this movie, fearing that the new rendition would hurt the reputation both other mediums have provided for me throughout my past, being among my favorites, but Favreau didn’t let me down, and I should’ve given him more credit beforehand. Favreau’s past films have been in all sorts of genres, proving he has the ability to adapt and has an amazing range.
Not only that, but hearing him talk about how he’s taken inspiration from other films like Apocalypse Now to craft this film’s scenes (like the big reveal of King Louie, the orangutan king who’s now a Gigantopithecus) was a selling point for me. So, with that trust in mind, what did Favreau deliver on?
First off, the amount of actors in this film that only lend their voice is incredible, and their performances are astounding. But Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, is the one who stole the show. Not only did he have to act in a completely artificial environment, but none of his co-stars were actually there with him — he was talking to CGI animals that hadn’t yet been created! That’s something that takes an adeptness for your craft, and it’s something that even veteran actors have had trouble with. Then, when you put him along side the star-studded cast that makes up this animal kingdom, and you have some of the best chemistry between characters seen on screen this year.
Bill Murray’s performance may be one of his best in a long time, bouncing off of Ben Kingsley very well for the time they’re together. Kingsley and Lupita Nyong’o make great mentors and caretakers for Mowgli, both just wanting to protect him from the big, bad tiger — Shere Khan, voiced by Idris Elba.
Elba didn’t just get the attention he earned on screen, he demanded it from the viewer. When that tiger walks on, your sight is solely on him. He captivates and even scares you a little, leaving you tense, waiting to see what he does next.
Next, the jungle and its inhabitants may have been artificial or computer generated, but that doesn’t stop you from forgetting they aren’t “real.” Every animal, down to the last hair, was so well detailed that you aren’t pulled out of the story by that fact. They’ve managed to soar out of the uncanny valley and make something akin to the real thing. You accept that these characters are there, and that they mean something to Mowgli, which is in part due to the amazing acting from the full cast. Every scene’s location looked beautiful, every animal looked incredible and seeing the environments react to the inhabitants was astounding.
The story doesn’t hold back either, as it tries to mix in the darker undertones and themes from the original text written by Rudyard Kipling and the 1967 film. The stories between all three differ greatly, but each rendition is something to be remembered. As for the animated film’s homages, there are two music pieces in the actual film, “Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You.” Both are delivered quite well, even though the latter dips a little too far into musical territory. Along with these, “Trust in Me (aka The Python’s Song),” is also redone for the film, sung by Scarlett Johansson and appearing on the soundtrack. As for the reference and appeal to the original text, Mowgli’s strife with Shere Khan is much more mature and conflicted, feeling more true to its source, but still doesn’t leap to the depths that the book takes.
All in all, I think this film has been one of the best films to come out this year, and may remain at the top of that list. The acting was amazing on all parts, the story mixes downtime and low-stakes fun with the more serious and dangerous scenes, the sound design is something to be admired for how much was created off set, and the film is a visual feast for a viewer. I was left with a desire to see more from the original book, but was perfectly pleased with what I was given.