A spectacular coming-of-age adventure with digital artistry to die for.
The Jungle Book
The Jungle Book, Disney’s latest cartoon-to-live-action adaptation, gets a lot of things right: It’s wildly entertaining, full of great vocal performances by a stacked A-list cast, and boasts a hilarious/creepy musical number by none other than Christopher Walken. But, as delightful as it is hearing Walken sing a jazzy Disney classic (fond memories of Pennies From Heaven come rushing back), the thing that makes this John Favreau-directed romp so enjoyable is its spellbinding presentation, which is worth the price of admission alone. This thing looks and sounds like pure movie magic and elicits the same gasps of wonder the original 1967 animated feature did at the time. Hell, this modern update may even be better. Time will tell.
Aside from star Neel Sethi, who plays our tumbling, red-loinclothed hero, Mowgli, every character is a computer generated, anatomically correct animal. Cartoons they are not: wolves don’t have insanely big “Disney eyes,” and birds don’t suddenly flash inexplicably human-toothed grins. These animals look real. They’re of our world. The animators and sound designers have done such good work here that it’s hard to express in words how damn amazing this thing looks, so let’s dive into the other aspects of the movie as a sort of respite before I continue gushing about the sound and visuals.
The story feels like a mash-up of the original 1967 animated musical and 1994’s The Lion King (several images—a stampede, a fiery final battle—will give you deja vu). It’s a combination that goes together like peanut butter and jelly. But PB and J can get old (especially when you find it). There are no ideas, themes, plot contours, or characters in this modern update that feel fresh or exciting. This isn’t a big issue, though, as the narrative formula Favreau and his team follow is tried and true and will work like gangbusters for those stepping into the theater expecting nothing more or less than a good ol’ time at the movies.
Plot-wise, screenwriter Justin Marks stays pretty close to the ’67 original. Mowgli is found in the jungle by stoic panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), who brings the “man-cub” to a pack wolves led by the noble Akela (Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito). Nurturing Mowgli as his adopted mother is Rashka (Lupita Nyong’o), who rears him as her own. There’s no greater threat in the jungle than prowling tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), and Mowgli has the unlucky distinction of being at the top of his kill list (for reasons learned later in flashback).
To keep Mowgli out of the tiger’s clutches, Bagheera leaves to take the boy to the nearest man village. They get separated along the way thanks to a ferocious interception by Khan, and Mowgli falls in with loafer bear Baloo (a game Bill Murray, which is always a treat). Mowgli uses a pulley contraption to knock bee hives down from a high ridge (the animals disapprovingly refer to his handmade tools as “tricks”) and the two become fast friends. They, in fact, break out a jaunty rendition of “Bear Necessities,” which will please fans of the original and likely underwhelm youngsters who bring no nostalgia into the theater.
Baloo and Bagheera embark on a rescue mission when Mowgli’s captured by monkeys and taken to King Louie (Walken), a gigantic orangutan who’s like the jungle’s Don Corleone. He wants the boy to harness the power of the “red flower” and pass it along, making him the true king of the jungle. The “red flower,” of course, is fire, and when Mowgli learns that his family has been terrorized by Khan in his absence, he chooses instead to use the “red flower” as a tool of revenge.
It’s hard to understand how the digital artists made the animal characters both anatomically accurate while also expressing the wide range of emotions brought forth by the voice actors. Animals can be extremely expressive with their faces, but the fact that these onscreen beasts are speaking English and it doesn’t look weird at all is a feat of animation that’s hard to wrap your head around. Most CG animals look too clinical and fall headfirst into the uncanny valley, but these creatures look utterly seamless. While the plot isn’t anything special, the movie has a unique momentum to it in that you’re constantly dying to see which animal will be brought to life next (the elephants are particularly wondrous).
The unsung heroes of The Jungle Book, no doubt, are the sound designers and engineers. Their work here is astonishing. The animated characters look great, but what really sells them and makes them look convincing are the sounds they make as they walk around the lush jungle environments. Baloo is a big ass bear, so when he plops down to eat his honey, you can hear and, more importantly, feel the thud. Great sound design typically goes unnoticed, but in the iconic scene where Mowgli gets seduced by giant snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), her hypnotizing hisses swirl around you and squeeze like her coils, Johansson’s sultry voice fading in and out, swinging back and forth on the speakers.
Favreau’s always had a knack for giving his movies a sense of constant propulsion, even when there isn’t that much going on. His movies tend to just glide by, and The Jungle Book is no exception. It’s a rollercoaster thrill ride with simple, somewhat clichéd set pieces that nevertheless work like gangbusters because Favreau’s a good filmmaker who knows what beats to hit to get maximum excitement out of an action scene. There’s a tense hide-and-seek sequence involving Mowgli and Louie in the monkey temple that we’ve all seen before (you see the jump scare coming from miles away), but the way it’s edited and shot is just so riveting that you can’t help but eat it up.
There is one aspect of the movie that is, unfortunately, a constant distraction: Sethi’s dialogue delivery. Honestly, the kid’s just not good at saying his lines convincingly, and it makes some scenes just feel weird. It’s not his fault, really. He’s acting opposite imaginary characters whose voices are provided by some of the best actors in the business. But the sad reality is that it’s pretty jarring to hear this kid speak semi-awkwardly while his co-stars coast through their lines like butter.
What Sethi’s is good at is emoting with his body; he’s a physical actor, and a talented one at that. He’s a convincing wolf child, leaping through the trees and sliding down slopes with an effortlessness and sense of purpose, like jungle parkour is all he’s ever known. The film’s best, most touching moment sees Mowgli help a herd of elephants save one of their young, who’s fallen into a pit. The sun is rising, and in semi-silhouette, we see him save the calf (using one of his clever “tricks”) and wave goodbye to his new friends. He feels honest in moments like these, and thankfully, there are several. Sethi’s a mostly worthy Mowgli in a more than worthy retelling of a gem from the golden age of Disney Animation. If they can keep up this standard when bringing more cartoon classics into the world of live action, I say keep ’em coming.
Writer’s note: If you can, watch the movie in IMAX 3-D. The sound is spectacular and the 3-D is some of the best I’ve seen. Also, the closing credits definitely benefit from the added effect.