Disney sure loves them some talking animals, especially those that deliver a powerful message. As “Zootopia” continues to be a force at the box office, the Mouse House has dazzled us once more with the ultimate “talking animal” film, Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”. While they already boast what had been the definitive adaptation with their 1967 animated classic, that perception may be about to change. Jon Favreau, who directed a pair of “Iron Man” films and other visual spectacles, brings Kipling’s jungle adventure to life with a technical wizardry only exceeded by the genuine emotion he’s able to evoke from this artificial animal kingdom.
Favreau doesn’t muck around with the nuts and bolts of Kipling’s story too much, except that the tone is decidedly darker. In fact, it’s pretty damned scary at times and the stakes are much greater than seen in the animated film. It makes for a more mature story, but there’s also enough humor and light-hearted fun that everybody will have something to love. Newcomer Neel Sethi plays “man cub” Mowgli, raised in the jungle by black panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley, who does “wizened old man” better than anyone) and a wolf pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). But there’s danger in the form of tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who wishes to devour Mowgli before he can become a man, as man is no friend of the jungle. In order to keep Mowgli safe, Bagheera takes him on a journey to the village where men live and wield the destructive power of the fiery “red flower”.
So basically this is like the anti-“Life of Pi”, where the tiger and man are totally at odds rather than relying on one another for survival. Forget Scar, Shere Khan is the most fearsome cat in Disney’s vast array of villains. The interesting thing about Kipling’s story, adapted here by Justin Marks, is that Khan isn’t necessarily wrong. The animals all live by a certain agreed upon code, that man does not belong in the jungle. Khan’s brutal tactics, spurred on by a burn he suffered at the hands of man years earlier, are what separates him from the other peace-loving creatures. And those creatures include the fun-loving, mischievous bear Baloo (voiced with sarcastic glee by Bill Murray), who befriends Mowgli and teaches him the “bear necessities”. The scenes with them together are the film’s highlight, and of course the familiar song is also a part of it. There are only two key songs that Favreau chose to include, the other is the Vaudevillian “I Wanna Be Like You” featuring a scat-tastic Christopher Walken as massive orangutan King Louie, and perhaps it would have been better to include a few more. While the two songs are great (both will be stuck in your head for days, trust me) and the performances wonderful, they don’t arrive until well past the halfway point and don’t necessarily fit with the story’s darker tone. There are multiple times when Mowgli faces certain death, like a terrifying encounter with the serpent Kaa (seductively voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and other times when beloved characters suffer at the claws of Khan.
While the story remains mostly intact, there are a few changes that alter the course of the story. One involves elephants and their place at the top of the jungle hierarchy, seen almost as god-like in their majesty. One of the film’s most beautiful, sincerely touching scenes involves Mowgli and the emotional connection he forms with the pack of elephants. Favreau, aided by cinematographer Bill Pope and Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital, captures the serenity and danger of the jungle. Every scene bristles with vibrant colors and energy, right down to the tiniest detail. That the vast majority of it was captured in a studio somewhere and on somebody’s laptop computer is incredible; you’ll feel as if you’re really swinging from the trees racing a bunch of thieving monkeys.
It’s hard to imagine a film that can do justice to Kipling’s story better than Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” has done. Others will try, of course, including a film directed by Andy Serkis in a couple of years for Warner Bros., but they’ll find it hard to improve upon anything that Favreau has already accomplished,