Neel Sethi; Voices of Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Lupita Nyong’o, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken
This digitally re-imagined children’s tale is the wondrous, scary future of filmmaking. It should not be missed by anyone who loves movies!
Director Jon Favreau (Elf, Iron Man) shot what looks like a lush jungle landscape entirely on soundstages in downtown Los Angeles. That fact alone will amaze you as you watch. The Jungle Book is a rich, decidedly darker – PG-rated – take on Rudyard Kipling’s books and the original, swinging Disney animation. Favreau’s completely invented world is thrilling, dense, and gorgeous to behold.
That being said, a few small wobbles keep this from being perfect. One or two animal voices seem less like the character, reminding us that famous people are behind them. Favreau’s taking advantage of the technology means a few moments get blown out of proportion, diving into Michael Bay-style onslaught. Also, a fierce commitment to keeping two famous Disney musical numbers means The Jungle Book’s tone is notably uneven.
In this version – cobbled together from the books and movie (I was a big fan of both as a kid), Sethi’s Mowgli is a boy rescued by a panther (Kingsley) and raised by wolves (specifically, his tender momma, Nyong’o). When the fire-scarred tiger Shere Khan (a terrifying Elba) finds out about the man-cub, he does everything he can to capture and kill the boy.
Sethi plays the only non-digital main character.
Most of Mowgli’s story is familiar to us, as is the boy’s circuitous travels through the jungle, back to the man village where he’ll be safe.
Of course, Mowgli is escorted by Bagheera the panther, and they’ll meet slippery Kaa the snake (Johansson), goofy Baloo the bear (Murphy), and a host of other animal characters.
The world is so well realized! It’s like all the magic of Avatar, Babe, and Life of Pi touched this film.
So, it’s sad that Johansson doesn’t work as the snake, despite some cool effects helping her. She sounds too much like sexy Johansson from Her and not slimy like the original voice by Sterling Holloway. You never forget it’s her behind the snakeskin.
Walken plays the orangutan King Louie like a mob boss. That might’ve worked if Favrea hadn’t made the ape three stories tall, including an overblown action sequence that’s more befitting King Kong.
The biggest missteps are the two famous songs. Up to the middle of the flick, Favreau mostly created a compelling, enveloping world without showtunes. Including them seems like a demand of Disney, and not a good addition to this version. All the sudden, the magic gets a little lost in the jungle.
Thankfully, we still have the creepy forest, the the horrifying tiger, the loyal wolves, and all the other majestic beasts – especially Kingsley’s feline and Murray’s bear. On a soundstage in California, Favreau and his filmmakers take us past the green screen and the effects. With enchantment and surprise, they show the future of animation – of film in general – in the most amazing way.