Directed by: Jon Favreau
The Plot: A vengeful tiger (Elba) seeks to destroy a boy (Sethi) raised by wolves in the Indian jungle. It’s up to a seasoned black panther (Kingsley) and a cagey bear (Murray) to guide and surrogate the child on his journey back to his people.
The Film: If Jon Favreau’s new reheat of Walt Disney’s 1967 animated version of The Jungle Book was going to find a way to trip itself up it could have easily been by miscasting Mowgli. Not just a pivotal role to Kipling’s tale, but for all intents and purposes, the only live action character in this current adaptation.
Child actors are a game of Russian roulette most of the time – just ask George Lucas, or anyone who struggled to get through any length of the horror film The Babadook. I doubt it was by providence that Jon ended up casting of Neel Sethi. Not that the kid is an actor born, he’s just so overwhelmingly thrilled to be in this movie his sincerity is infectious. Neel’s conviction that there is a massive, living, breathing Indian jungle surrounding him in what must have been one of Studio City’s larger green screen halls is absolute. This is a boy totally willing to make believe. As a wonderful consequence we simply must make believe as well.
Not that Favreau makes it difficult anyway. His version of The Jungle Book is so lush, so overwhelmingly competent and charming, that not only is it the director’s best work to date, (sorry Iron Man and Chef) it feels like the benchmark for the Summer blockbuster season has been set a month early – and not by DC Entertainment. (not sorry Batman VS Superman) Stadium seating was invented for family films as thrilling as this one.
Fret not nostalgics, some of your favorite songs and moments from the animated feature have cameos in this live action production (though the term “live action” feels disingenuous for this specific movie as Jon Favreau has somehow discovered how to blur the line between what the Academy of Arts and Sciences would consider a live action film and what the definition of an animated feature could be) in some fashion. From Baloo and Mowgli’s ‘Bear Necessities’ river float, to Kaa’s rain-ringing irises as she mesmerizes the mancub to sleep in her coils, to King Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You” croon, they’ve managed to maintain some of the major inroads into our collective Disney history – right down to the classic Walt Disney storybook backdrop behind the final credit crawl. (don’t plan on leaving your seat anytime shortly after THE END cues you that the film has concluded – it hasn’t)
Fan service is fine, but at a certain point – and I’m looking at you Jurassic World – it starts to feel desperate. Thankfully Jon Favreau is discerning, only tipping his hat occasionally to his now, nearly fifty year old animated predecessor. (feel ancient yet?) It’s the new stuff in this film that helps push it past the point of watchable cash-in. A spectacular sequence where Mowgli and a herd of water buffalo find themselves on the wrong side of a monsoon-induced mud slide. How every animal in the jungle bows their head to passing elephants – these elephants revered as the aphasic deities who furrowed the world into existence. There’s also this incredible sense of fantasy permeating every frame of the film, mostly due to Jon Favreau’s tweaks to the size and scale of everything.
Upon our first glimpse of Elba’s fearsome Shere Khan, we can’t help but notice just how large he is, or, for that matter, how hyper-real the big cat looks. Khan’s forearms are the size of tree trunks. His eyes the size and weight of medicine balls. The python Kaa seemingly has no end to her. She simply surrounds the mancub Mowgli, large parcels of her dangling sporadically from the trees above, stretching out past the point of reality and into the realm of daydreams. Or nightmares – it’s subjective to each viewer. There’s a scene where Mowgli steals the ‘Red Flower’ from a human village, the people inside commune around a roaring bonfire as large as a category four hurricane. Then there’s King Louie. A fan favorite on the scale of Kong of old. Christopher Walken interprets the primate lord as Brando’s Colonel Kurtz by way of Brando’s Don Veto Corleone – by way of Christopher Walken. It’s absolutely hysterical.
A bit spooky too.
What this inflation in scale achieves is it gives The Jungle Book a very offworld, very Middle Earth feel. This is a place that can only exist in our imagination, but by an incredible stroke of artistry we can now see it splashed across the canvas of the silver screen, allowing our other four senses to do what they do best – fill in the sensory blanks.
The Verdict: Take your family to it. Hurry if you can. Tonight isn’t soon enough.