Disney continues its parade of making all of the world’s money with The Jungle Book, a sort-of live-action sort-of remake of their animated adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s titular stories. Once more, we join Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a man-cub human child who finds himself raised in the wild by various beasts. Said creatures include the panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) and a den of wolves, with mama Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) being the most loving of the boy. Life is odd, as each passing day brings newfound skills for our homo-sapien, but it’s a pleasant one. It’s also a peaceful existence. At least, it is until the menacing tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) learns of Mowgli’s existence and, with his own scarred history with mankind fueling him, he makes his displeasure of the man-cub’s presence known. Fortunately, for Mowgli, there is a temporary truce between the animals due to a drought. Unfortunately, they all know it is a temporary scenario.
Directed by Jon Favreau (Elf, Iron Man) and with a script by Justin Marks (that awful Street Fighter movie…no not that one, the newer one), The Jungle Book has little in the way of narrative surprises. It is, largely, the story and characters you know. Bagheera is the concerned adult who wants Mowgli to always be careful. Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray) is the lazy bear that wants to hang and chow down on honey. What is surprising is how magnificent the film manages to be from start to finish.
Though Favreau has made big budget affairs before, it hasn’t especially been his forte. He knows how to shoot the scale of something epic, but his specialty as a filmmaker is earnestness. Favreau’s smaller affairs Elf and Chef excelled with stories of parents, their kids and the simplicity of that bond; cynicism and snark be damned. This pushes The Jungle Book at all times, with the innocent eyes of Mowgli staring in awe at the legendary elephants that built his surroundings or quiet connection of a mother and her adopted son. There is wonder to all of the proceedings that at times call to mind the works out of Studio Ghibli, with a reverence and fear of nature ever present, all with breathtaking visuals to boost it that step further.
The animation is nothing short of spectacular. It’s more than, say, Shere Khan looking like a real tiger. Shere Khan has a swathe of emotions. Assisted by a startlingly unnerving performance by Elba, Shere Khan is a terrifying presence, though one with depth, as his fear of fire is ever-present. This is a villain of real menace, with a motive that is beyond a desire for power or wealth. As creepy as Shere Khan is, Baloo is as lovable. Murray is heart and joy in the part, baring his typical comedy quickness and none of the too-cool or over-it element of his style. The delight Baloo garners from Mowgli’s honey-gathering contraption is a hoot and one of countless memorable images Favreau and company paint, as John Debney’s score plays with the original Disney classic, while sweeping and swooning in its own manner.
This is big time, family filmmaking at its best. A proper laugh, cry and scream time at the movies, The Jungle Book is the finest American blockbuster in who knows how long. The characters pop with individuality and verve, each frame is carefully crafted and the heart beats with a rich glow that will leave audiences giddy.
The Jungle Book opens in Seattle Friday.