The Jungle Book
Fancy computer animation brings Kipling classic to life
The Jungle Book (2016)
Directed by Jon Favreau
Cast: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley
In one of those conjunctions that the general public thinks is pure coincidence, but the movie industry knows is pure laziness, we find ourselves facing down not one, not two, but three adaptations of The Jungle Book. Hollywood figures the time is ripe because: A) Rudyard Kipling’s book is now public domain, so it’s cheap, and B) at least two other people already rubber stamped the decision, so it must be a smart one. Later this year we’ll get “a 3D animated adventure” from the makers of The Tigger Movie. (Meh.) In 2018 we’ll see a big-budget, motion-capture version directed by Andy Serkis (the oft-animated actor from the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Planet of the Apes movies). For now, though, we have the first and what’s looking like the most successful version—a Disney-backed live-action adaptation that takes as much from the 1967 cartoon as the 1894 book.
The Jungle Book whisks us away to the jungles of turn-of-the-century India where the sprightly, orphaned “man-cub” Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) is being raised by a pack of wolves. Just to drive home the story’s fantastical elements, he’s also being mentored by a wise black panther named Bagheera (Sir Ben Kingsley). As in Kipling’s original stories, much is made of the “rules” by which these animals live. Bagheera does his best to mold young Mowgli into a proud and powerful wolf—without allowing him to resort to his human “tricks” such as using tools. But in this savage world, such tricks are Mowgli’s one advantage. He’s going to need them in order to survive, especially when he’s stalked by the dictatorial tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba, serving up some more fine voice talent on the heels of Disney’s last animated outing, Zootopia).
Fearing that Mowgli’s continued presence will bring Shere Khan’s wrath down upon all the animals of the jungle, Bagheera encourages young Mowgli to flee back to human civilization—a world he’s never really known. What follows is—much like the original short stories—an episodic quest in which our boy runs across a number of colorful and iconic characters. Since a lot of people grew up watching the 1967 toon, these encounters will be comfortingly familiar: the lazy bear Baloo (here voiced by Bill Murray), the dangerously seductive serpent Kaa (a sibilant Scarlett Johansson) and the inscrutable jungle kingpin King Louie (a pitch-perfect Christopher Walken).
Though the film is rated PG, the tone is often quite dark. Many of the situations Mowgli finds himself in are way too frightening for the youngest of viewers. King Louie in particular has been given a big-screen makeover. Instead of the slaphappy orangutan of Disney fame, he’s now a monstrous gigantopithecus whose introduction looks and feels a hell of a lot like Martin Sheen’s encounter with Marlon Brando at the end of Apocalypse Now. It’s a gripping, dramatic sequence topped by a doozy of a chase scene. But, again, the youngest audience members are likely to burst into tears at the animalistic peril.
Director Jon Favreau has already established himself as a reliable pop craftsman in films like Elf, Iron Man and Zathura. Here he keeps the action moving, racing breathlessly from one tense sequence to the next. Young star Neel Sethi is a serious bundle of energy, leaping and tumbling acrobatically between adventures. The Jungle Book was basically shot on a soundstage with Sethi the only real, live-action element. Poor kid. It must have been a very lonely set. Everything else—from leafy backdrops to talking animal costars—was generated on a computer. The special effects are generally quite impressive, narrowly—but not entirely—avoiding that “uncanny valley” that makes realistically rendered cartoons kind of creepy to human eyes. After a while, though, the idea of lifelike talking animals seems perfectly natural—which is as good a testament to this film’s technical wizardry as any. The 3D is equally dazzling here, but the endless whipping past of tree branches and jungle vines made me a little motion sick—so use your own judgment on choosing that option.
The film’s only odd sidestep is in including two musical numbers from the Disney cartoon. This is not a musical, so the two songs seem like rather random inserts. But the tunes (“The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You”) carry such nostalgic charm that it’s hard to begrudge their inclusion. Plus, Disney deserves some credit for finally giving us a faithful live-action adaptation, rather than the notably adulterated fairy tales they’ve released recently (Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella).
Families searching for a little adventure are going to be entertained by this high-tech new take on a century-old classic. It’s fun, fast-paced and dramatic enough to get the blood pumping. Preschoolers should stick with the 1967 version for a couple more years. But the rest of us kids, adults and kidults are free to enjoy this energetic blending of modern technology and old-fashioned storytelling.