There have been an onslaught of live action Disney adaptations in recent years and the results have so-so. While some have kept some of that classic Disney magic (2015’s Cinderella), others show that maybe these stories are better if left animated (Maleficent, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland). With The Jungle Book marking 2016’s adaptation, and many more adaptations on the docket for future years, we have to ask ourselves if we really need all of these classic films “re-imagined.” While we can’t speak to the certainty of other planned films, when it comes to The Jungle Book, the endeavor paid off. We now have a film that not only captures the magic of the original, but takes the story into new places and has improved on the original tale.
Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s 19th century short stories and the 1967 animated film, The Jungle Book tells the familiar story of the man-cub Mowgli and his journey to find his place in the jungle. With the exception of Neel Sethi, the rest of the cast is made up of actors lending their voices to the anthropomorphic animals in the jungle. Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, and others all do an amazing job bringing this story to life.
With a voice cast this talented in place and the mandate to adapt a famous animated Disney film, the order is pretty tall for whoever steps up to direct. Luckily for us, Jon Favreau is up to the task and is the real star of the show here. It seems as though his career was leading him to this point. After directing family films Elf and Zathura, he proved himself by practically starting the Marvel Cinematic Universe with 2008’s Iron Man. After the disappointments that were Iron Man 2 and Cowboys and Aliens, Favreau took a break from blockbusters to tell the deeply personal/autobiographical Chef.
Well, he is back to the large scale story and Favreau proves why blockbusters can be so powerful. Yes, the CGI is amazing (we’ll get to that in a moment), but underneath all the technical wizardry, there is a story of a boy trying to find his place in the world, and Favreau is the man to tell that story. Whether it be his direction of these digital action scenes, the wonder he creates looking at some of these beasts, or the tension he builds during a frightening hunting scene, Favreau pulls you in and you buy into this fantastical world.
So yes, Neel Sethi is a wonderfully talented young actor who plays Mowgli with just the right level of innocence, and yes, Jon Favreau brings such heart and emotion to this story, his direction is critical in the success of The Jungle Book. But let’s be clear, with the exception of Sethi, the film is entirely a digital creation, these effects have to work or the film fails. While Favreau brought the heart, Moving Picture Company (Godzilla, Prometheus) and Weta Digital (Lord of the Rings, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) bring the wonder and these visual effects are astounding.
Whether it be the beautiful jungle environment that is created or the insane amount of detail that is shown on each animal, the visuals in this film are incredible. But they aren’t amazing just to be amazing. The details on each individual animal add to the experience of watching a story. The great voice cast would be worthless if these talking animals didn’t look “believable.” Quite the opposite, when Idris Elba speaks as Shere Khan, we believe in the animated tiger we are looking at, and as a result we buy into the movie and experience the fear Elba is communicating.
A specific point needs to be made here, The Jungle Book proves that “digital filmmaking” and green screens are not automatically a bad thing. This style of photo-realistic animation could be disastrous in the hands of other filmmakers, but Favreau proves that these effects are a tool to be used in telling a story. The film is directed with energy, moving the “camera” around the environment to show both wonder and terror (when necessary). On one hand, you have the Star Wars prequels, where the backgrounds are filled with moving parts that “look cool,” but in reality it is just two people talking in front of a green screen. On the other hand, you have The Jungle Book, where a single actor is interacting with a fully digital world, yet it feels more real than most blockbusters out there due in part to the engrossing direction and amazing effects.
Where The Jungle Book pleasantly surprised me is where it deviated from the 1967 animated film. Whether they be from the original short stories or not, the changes do a great deal of service in creating a more compelling tale. While the animated film really boils down to a collection of unrelated scenes where Mowgli sings songs with different animals, the 2016 adaptation is able to build a single narrative thread through the entire story. Mowgli’s journey is one to get invested in, and Bill Murray’s Baloo and Ben Kingsley’s Bahgheera make for a great cinematic family.
The film takes its tropical setting to give some commentary of man’s role on the planet. It is definitely not preachy at all, the commentary is welcome here. Showing both the destruction man can cause to the jungle, while also showing the potential of man to help animals and save the jungle, The Jungle Book tells an entertaining story while also presenting the case to take better care of the earth.
As mentioned, the deviations from the animated film really work to help The Jungle Book be a successful blockbuster all around. With just a handful of narrative changes, Mowgli becomes a better protagonist and, more importantly, Shere Khan becomes a convincing antagonist whose motivation we actually understand (last time around, he was just a jerk Tiger who wanted to eat a kid).
When you come to the end of the film, there is a sense of satisfaction. Not only have you just watched a beautifully crafted film, the narrative and emotional stakes come to a clear resolve. The word satisfaction is perfectly apt when describing The Jungle Book. Whether it be the promising career of Neel Sethi, the continued direction of Disney adapting all of their animated films, or whatever project Favreau takes on next, the talent was all here for this film and I can’t wait to see what these talented people do next. Oh, and if you were wondering, yes, it is amazing to hear Bill Murray sing The Bear Necessities.