The Jungle Book is a visually stunning adventure film. Where Disney's 1967 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's stories was a traditional cartoon, the 2016 model uses motion capture and computer generated images to create a photo-realistic wonder. The little boy wearing red “Zardoz” shorts as he runs with the wolves is the only part of the movie from the physical world. After watching 110 minutes of lush Indian jungle vistas onscreen, it is shocking to see the statement “Filmed in Downtown Los Angeles.”
Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Elf, Zathura: A Space Adventure) told the Chicago Sun-Times that there had been discussions about creating a screenplay based on Kipling's works that would be “a lot more intense and compelling” than the original Disney adaptation. Favreau said he grew up on the '67 film and remembered it as being all about music and emotion and humor. “I felt we had to pay homage to the Disney version,” he said, “because without those elements in the film, this all would have seemed like a missed opportunity.”
The result is a fair mix of the old and the new. There's a sense of physicality that comes with the ultra-realistic talking animals. The chase scenes and fights are indeed intense, so much so that the lighter moments come as a relief. For the most part, each character gets only one defining trait, but the cast doing the voice work manages to create a sense of depth beyond Justin Marks' screenplay.
First time actor Neel Sethi plays Mowgli, a 10-year-old human who was found abandoned in the jungle by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), a black panther and leader of the jungle community. Raised with their cubs by wolves Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), Mowgli is a happy kid, despite the fact that his siblings are maturing faster than he is. Mowgli has a gift for crafting tools, but Bagheera scolds him for using such human “tricks.”
A dry season causes the animals to declare a “water truce” which brings predators and prey together. Unfortunately, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a Bengal tiger that lost an eye to humanity's “red flower” (fire), wants to take out his anger on the boy. It is decided that, for his safety, Mowgli must be returned to humans. He gets separated from Bagheera along the way, though, and soon makes the acquaintance of a big, lazy, honey-craving brown bear named Baloo (Bill Murray).
There's a good chance you'll recognize Murray even before he starts talking. While Disney remains true to their photo-realistic approach, the features of the bear are tweaked just enough – especially around the eyes – to make the creature appear Murray-ish. The relationship between Mowgli and Baloo is the heart of The Jungle Book and, thankfully, they are allowed plenty of time together before the intensity picks back up. Be warned, two songs from the '67 film pop up: “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan'na Be Like You.” Some may smile at this – I was just glad when they were over.
Young Neel Sethi holds his own throughout the film, while Murray, Kingsley and Elba do the heavy lifting. Scarlett Johansson is wonderfully squirm-inducing as Kaa, a seductive boa constrictor, while Christopher Walken gets the chance to creep out a new generation as King Louie, a power-mad gigantopithecus. His scenes are harrowing, but they feel more artificial than the rest of the film. One more voice of note: the recent passed Garry Shandling plays Ikki, an insecure porcupine. It's a nice exit for the comic great.
It will be interesting to see what happens to The Jungle Book when awards season rolls around. Will it be submitted in the Best Animated Film category? With only one human appearing in a completely animated environment with CGI costars, it could certainly be argued that it qualifies. I wonder, though, if filmmakers working with photo-realism want to be considered with the more traditional animated fare. We'll see.
If you have sensitive children, be warned: Parts of the movie are quite intense. As for the rest of you, I suggest you see this film in a theater. Productions as ambitious as The Jungle Book deserve to be experienced on a big screen with a crowd.
A parting thought: Imagine how much more interesting the celebrated painfest The Revenant would have been if Leonardo DiCaprio's character had encountered the Bill Murray bear. If only, if only ...