Whatever worries or strife you have about this new version of the beloved Disney classic, “The Jungle Book,” forget about them. Jon Favreau’s take, which releases to theaters on April 15, is a gorgeous spectacle to behold not just on the big screen, but in 3D. Yes, Favreau’s film is just one of the few to actually use the effect well. It ranks high up there with “Hugo,” “Life of Pi,” and “Avatar” as those worthy of shelling out a few extra dollars to see things pop out of the screen.
The most brilliant aspect of the whole thing is how it was all filmed in downtown Los Angeles, but the viewer never feels like they are watching something that was shot entirely on a green screen – which “The Jungle Book” was. Every scene and every character feels and looks natural. Even with their mouths moving, the animals look like they actually came from the jungle. It’s mesmerizing from start to finish.
But there’s more to “The Jungle Book” than just its remarkable use of visuals and 3D. Though it’s a tale that has been told many times, a lot of it feels fresh. Favreau and crew create a nice blend of laughable moments with terror and excitement to make the 2016 “Jungle Book” a thrilling ride.
Following the death of his father, young Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) is taken in by a panther named Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) and then left to be raised by a family of wolves headed by Rakasha (Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). Though he is human, and also the only human in the entire movie, Mowgli is welcome to roam in the jungle of India with the rest of the animals.
But there’s one animal that doesn’t appreciate Mowgli’s presence, and that’s the vicious and sinister Shere Khan (Idris Elba). He wants Mowgli gone from the animal kingdom, but he doesn’t want him to just leave and never return; he wants him dead. Mowgli flees his family to keep them out of danger. And it’s in the jungle that he meets some of the most unique characters it has to offer, and learns some extraordinary lessons about life.
Sethi is perfectly cast as young Mowgli. Though this is his first film, and all of his co-stars are CGI, his performance comes off as one that is done by someone who has a few films under his belt. That’s not the case here, and you never see Sethi struggle with the role.
The voice acting is top notch, but there are two in particular that truly stand out. Bill Murray as Baloo brings the most laughs and charm, as he convinces Mowgli to do some deeds before becoming best buds with him later on. The chemistry between Sethi and Murray is delightful. A smile will appear on your face when the two start singing “The Bare Necessities.”
When Shere Khan first makes his presence known, it’s terrifying. And that feel lasts the whole film when he’s onscreen. He’s scarred from a battle involving Mowgli’s dad years ago, and he walks around with an angered look the entire time. He means harm to all those who cross his path. And Elba brings quite a bit of ferociousness to the performance.
The only voice actor that is underused is Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, the evil snake that tries to kill Mowgli. Johansson’s performance is fine, but there’s this immediate feeling that there should have been more once she exits the film.
Christopher Walken’s performance as King Louie is fun, as is his rendition of “I Wanna Be Like You.” But it almost felt like the song was wedged in just to satisfy fans of the original film. Murray’s and Sethi’s rendition of “The Bare Necessities” had the feel of two friends having fun and just going about their day before they start singing. It comes almost naturally to where “I Wanna Be Like You” brings the film to a halt for a musical number that it could have done without.
Flaws aside, this new version of “The Jungle Book” is a real treat. There are some scenes that may be a little too scary for children, but the overall film is something that they’ll enjoy as much as their parents. It has heart, and it is littered with moments of joy throughout, as well as plenty of chuckles and some scenes that will bring you to tears. It’s absolutely a must-see.