Review: "The Jungle Book"
"The Jungle Book," a new live-action retelling of the classic 1967 animated feature from Walt Disney Studios and Director Jon Favreau, reinvents the Rudyard Kipling fable for our time in dazzlingly photorealistic CG.
While keeping some of the songs and whimsy of the Disney feature, Favreau's "Jungle Book" leans more towards the darker tones of the original Kipling tales. In it, Mowgli, a boy orphaned in the jungle, is raised by wolves until the vicious tiger Shere Khan declares open season on him and he is forced to leave the only home he knows.
As he makes his way towards the Man Village, Mowgli is alternately advised by the orderly, regimented Bagheera and the free-spirited Baloo...
...While eluding the grasps of both the predatory Kaa...
...And the ambitious King Louie.
To get the obvious out of the way, the CG on this film is amazing. Filmed in Downtown Los Angeles, it is astonishing how convincing it is--the environment, the animals, the wind and the water all are almost indistinguishable from real, and are absolutely convincing as characters and backdrop for the story.
The voice cast is used to good effect and is as skillful as their combined star power would lead you to expect. Bill Murray shows an impressive sensitivity behind the jovial Baloo and Lupita Nyong’o's Raksha has a goodbye moment with Mowgli with more emotion behind it than many a similar scene between human actors.
The only voice that rings a little light for the role is Scarlett Johansson, whose Kaa never really sounds quite as menacing as she looks. In contrast, the one voice I really wasn't sure about from the trailers was Christopher Walken--however he turned out to maybe be one of the few actors possessing the ideal skill set for the alternately creepy menace/song-and-dance man/Gigantopithecus, King Louie.
Speaking of music, one could hardly think about the 1967 "Jungle Book" without its deservedly popular score. While Murray does hum a few bars of "Bare Necessities," the big number is reserved for Walken and "I Wanna Be Like You," on which Richard Sherman consulted and wrote new lyrics.
Neel Sethi has the lion's share of the business on this one as the only physical character in the film. Fortunately he's naturally engaging, giving Mowgli a cleverness and initiative the animated one lacked, while easily avoiding the child actor pitfalls of annoying and cloying.
Ultimately, I think the film works well because it deviates strongly from both the original book and animated predecessor. Each version on some level reflects the time it came from: Kipling's story, in which Mowgli is abandoned/betrayed by both the wolves and mankind and winds up living solitary and apart is often thought to be commentary on British Imperialism in India. The 1967 feature, coming at a time of social revolution and the Vietnam War shows Mowgli retreating from the jungle and all its dangers, to the safety and familiarity of Man's Village. Today's Mowgli faces a Shere Khan as fueled by fear and hatred as revenge: Whose most chilling scene is that where he amiably teaches the wolf cubs that caring for others who are not your kind, is only to impoverish and weaken you and yours.
While the filmmakers tend to stress the themes of family in "The Jungle Book," what I found most prominent in the film was Mowgli's journey to discover what it means, to be a Man. Is it simply DNA and opposable thumbs? The ability to use tools and understand Physics? A facility for slaughter and destruction? Or a capacity for acts of compassion for others who look, speak, and act differently, at great personal cost? How interesting to live in a time where film animals often display the best of humanity, while TV politicians continually demonstrate the worst of beasts.
"The Jungle Book" is presented by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Rated PG, it stars Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Neel Sethi and Christopher Walken.
Directed by Jon Favreau and produced by Jon Favreau and Brigham Taylor. Screenplay by Justin Marks.
The film enters general release on April 15, 2015.