When Disney first announced that they were going to create live action versions of some of their classic animated films, I was more than skeptical, but I have been impressed with the outcome of “Alice in Wonderland,” “Maleficent” and “Cinderella.” Now I can add “The Jungle Book” to the list. Jon Favreau’s take on the tale is something that Walt Disney himself would be proud of. And really, the end product is actually another form of animation as everything but Neel Sethi (who plays Mowgli) is computer animated by over 800 artists! This is technology that Walt would have embraced. But more importantly, this film is another classic form of storytelling that takes from the original work and builds on it, making it even better. Everything that you love about the original 1967 animated cartoon is here and anything you didn’t, isn’t.
Based on stories from Rudyard Kipling, “The Jungle Book” tells of the adventures of a toddler who was found in the jungle by the blank panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) who brings him to live with Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and their wolf family. Life is peaceful for the “man cub” and his new family until Shere Khan (Idris Elba) the Bengal Tiger learns that the boy is living within the animal community. After being threatened with his life and the lives of others, Mowgli (Sethi) agrees to go to the man village so that there may be peace in the jungle. Along the way he meets the sneaky Python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) who tells him about his past, Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) who befriends him in exchange for some honey rescue and the gigantopithecus King Louie (Christopher Walken) who is sort of the jungle’s godfather wanting the secret to the “red flower” aka, fire. The casting is all excellent with Murray being perhaps the most inspired choice. Some of the audience complained while exiting the theater that there wasn’t enough of Kaa in the film and I think I agree. Johansson’s take on the lying creature, a symbol of Satan himself, is incredible. If there is weakness, I would have to say that I wasn’t thrilled with Sethi’s performance. His reactions are good, but his reading of the lines comes across as stilted. Fortunately, the rest of the movie more than makes up for that.
This new “Jungle Book” stays faithful to the original tale and yet has enough differences to stand on its own. Unlike the other new live action stories mentioned, this one features two songs from the original film which somehow seems to fit this otherwise non-musical film. One song that was omitted from the film (but probably shouldn’t have been), “Trust in Me” sung by Kaa’s Johansson, is included during the credits.
This new story is also a lot more adventure-driven and less comedic. It is also a bit brutal and some scenes will be disturbing to the very young. Better keep them watching the ’67 film for now. The ending too is different from the original and for many, it is a welcomed choice. This Mowgli too is tougher and learns how to face his fears, making the story even more inspirational.
All in all, Favreau’s “Jungle Book” is beautiful on every level. If you have a chance to see it on an IMAX screen, you will be amazed with the 3-D and sound effects. Even the ending credits are worth sitting through as well, and with 800 names, there is a lot to sit through.