Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is a treat. The 2016 movie is another in what is becoming a long line of live-action remakes of Walt Disney classics, with this one based on the 1967 Wolfgang Reitherman animated film of the same name and on the eponymous Rudyard Kipling works.
Other kicks at the Disney can have included Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Robert Stromberg’s take on Maleficent, but those pictures lacked certain fire. Not so with Favreau’s The Jungle Book. The update works as a clever, adventurous addendum to the jazzy original and offers a decidedly modern, naturalistic flavour.
The story centres on Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young boy raised by wolves in an Indian jungle. The Indian wolf Raksha, voiced by Lupita Nyong’o, is his mother. The black panther Bagheera, voiced by Ben Kingsley, has been watching over Mowgli and tries to get him to the apparent safety of the man village after the tiger Shere Khan, voiced by Idris Elba, starts hunting the boy.
The journey to safety takes a few twists and turns, with Mowgli encountering a Scarlett Johansson-based python. He’s rescued by the sloth bear Baloo, voiced by Bill Murray, and becomes fast friends with the carefree animal. Shere Khan, meanwhile, draws closer and the gigantic ape King Louie, voiced by Christopher Walken, also has a part to play.
On the surface, a movie featuring a pile of CGI talking animals probably shouldn’t work. Favreau’s decision to use a hyperreal backdrop rather than any kind of natural milieu would also seem rife with falseness, but The Jungle Book not only makes great use of photorealistic rendering and CGI but it makes it breathe.
The jungle of Favreau’s creation is a fascinating, terrifying, gorgeous place. It feels deep and legitimate and one wants to spend a lot of time working through the world. There are surprises around every corner and the visuals evoke curiosity and wonder. Bill Pope’s cinematography maintains both a sense of awe and a sense of raw motion.
The digital rendering of the animals is spectacular and there is nothing gimmicky about it, believe it or not. In most circumstances, the notion of a talking tiger chasing a boy would seem silly. But The Jungle Book has more in common with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi than anything remotely silly and the threats and miracles of the world seem real and ensconced in something consequential.
Sethi is a terrific embodiment of Mowgli, even if he doesn’t come to terms with a need for growing up and getting out of the jungle in the same way as his animated counterpart. He rips through the jungle with aplomb and creates marvellous interplay with CGI characters, maintaining an easy feel with Murray’s Baloo.
There are even songs, like “The Bare Necessities.” Murray makes it light and ordinary and the movie never feels like it’s looking for a way to wedge the music in. It springs out naturally and plays with a lovely visual at the same time, while Walken’s delivery of “I Wanna Be Like You” is grand.
The Jungle Book is a good old-fashioned slice of storytelling excellence and a gloriously visual tale of delight, sensation and fun. It takes the easy glory of the last film Walt Disney oversaw and makes it fresh, modern and surprisingly exuberant.