Film Review: The Jungle Book

When it comes to good filmmaking, 'The Jungle Book' boasts far more than the bare necessities.
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Ever since the billion dollar success of Alice in Wonderland back in 2010, Disney has gone back to their roots – and how.  From Dumbo to The Little Mermaid to Beauty and the Beast, just about every Disney classic (minus Song of the South – gulp) is being freed from the vault and given a 21st century, live-action update. Nestled in between last year’s Cinderella and this May’s Alice Through the Looking Glass comes Jon Favreau’s take on The Jungle Book, a collection of Rudyard Kipling adventure stories that first got the Disney treatment back in 1964. There’s a wider discussion to be had about whether Disney’s obsession with franchises, remakes and sequels over original properties is sustainable—certainly, their Marvel movies are starting to settle into a rut—but the most important question will always be “Yes, but are the movies good?”

The Jungle Book is very, very good.

Chalk one point up for knowing your strong points and sticking to them.

Like Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, The Jungle Book manages to take an old story, presented in a traditional, earnest way, and still make it feel fresh and exciting.  I would argue that both films feel fresh in part because they’re so straightforward. There’s this idea nowadays that stories traditionally thought to be for younger audiences have to be made “edgy” so that adults will see them. Call it the Batman Begins effect. Disney itself bought into this with Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, but they’re far from the only ones: A fairy tale heroine went warrior princess in Universal’s Snow White and the Huntsman, and Paramount turned yellow jumpsuit-wearing April O’Neil into a sexpot in their 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles remake. There’s nothing inherently wrong about updating older stories in this way, and it’s hardly a new phenomenon. But sometimes it’s still nice to settle into a movie theatre and watch a traditional story, well-told.

The traditional story in this case is that of “man-cub” Mowgli, who was found as a toddler wandering around the jungle by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and was subsequently raised by a pack of wolves. One day Mowgli is discovered by the human-hating tiger Shere Khan—Idris Elba, more terrifying and compelling a villain than pretty much everyone Disney’s Marvel movies have thrown on-screen—who wants young Mowgli’s head on a spike. Forced by Shere Khan’s threats to set off for the human village, the only place where he’ll be safe, Mowgli’s travels see him cross paths with an affable, lazy bear (Bill Murray), a quietly menacing snake (Scarlett Johansson) and a mob boss-esque king of the monkeys (Christopher Walken).

Though The Jungle Book boasts a star-studded voice cast (Giancarlo Esposito, Lupita Nyong’o and the late Gary Shandling also lend their pipes), the true stars of the film are newcomer Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, and the team of visual effects artists who brought Kipling’s jungle to life. Sethi’s line delivery is, at times, a bit stiff, but on balance he’s a remarkable find for Favreau. His Mowgli is energetic and precocious without being obnoxious, a tough balance to strike. And he manages seemingly effortlessly to interact with his digital co-stars in an authentic manner, a feat that many adult actors working on VFX-heavy productions have trouble with.

Speaking of the visual effects: Holy cannoli, Batman. The very first shot of the film—a seamless transition from the Disney logo to Mowgli’s jungle—is absolutely breathtaking, and the rest of The Jungle Book lives up to that promise. The 3D is immersive, rather than distracting; even those skeptical of 3D would do well to pony up the additional $5 and see how effective 3D can be when it’s done well.

Further, a problem that often plagues modern blockbusters is that computer-generated elements, though they look good on first glance, lack weight – it’s quite obvious to the audience, if only on a subconscious level, that they’re not actually sharing the same space as the human actors. That’s not a problem that The Jungle Book has. Everything feels real, including the danger that Mowgli finds himself in. There was a mudslide scene, in particular, that I found genuinely frightening, though I spoke to some kids after the screening who didn’t seem fazed by it. Maybe they’re more hardcore than I am.

There are elements of The Jungle Book that don’t quite work. The pacing’s a bit off – the monkey scenes about two-thirds of the way through drag somewhat, and then the movie goes into fast-forward mode so that Mowgli can get back to Shere Khan for their final confrontation. (It takes him days to get to the human village but only a few hours to get back? That’s a really tiny jungle.) Though King Louis’ big musical number, “I Wanna Be Like You,” is a key element of the original movie, it felt extraneous here. (No such complaints about “The Bare Necessities,” which I expect to have stuck in my head for a good week.) And—though this is less an issue with The Jungle Book than animated movies as a whole—I wish we could go back to the days where animated characters didn’t have to be voiced almost exclusively by major stars. Sometimes the casting is spot-on—Idris Elba here, Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman in Zootopia, everyone in Inside Out—but other times it’s just distracting. “Oh, hey, that’s Scarlett Johansson as a snake for all of five minutes.” A-listers are more marketable than the radio and theatre actors who made up much of classic Disney’s vocal slate, but—as The Jungle Book itself shows—sometimes there’s no point in messing with something that already works.

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