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‘The Jungle Book:’ Film Review

Remember that time when they were making Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and George Lucas convinced Steven Spielberg that they didn’t need to really go on location this time, that they could just create an entire jungle set digitally and it would be perfectly fine?  The result was a jungle way less than convincing (further confounded by a bizarre army of horrifying CG monkeys and poor Shia LaBeouf swinging on vines like Tarzan), and it added to that droopy vibe that permeated Crystal Skull.

Eight years later, the technology to render a startlingly photorealistic jungle has finally arrived after eluding Senor Spielbergo.  Also, people who found the CG animals in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah a bit on the sketchy side will be delighted to know that that technology has really come into its own, as well.  It’s all on glorious display in The Jungle Book, and the result is more like Life of Pi and less like Evan Almighty.

I’m not all that fired up about this new tactic Disney is taking by adapting some of their old classic animated films into new live-action films.  I understand why they’re doing it; they’ve got the corporate synergy of a classic film library and theme parks to exploit.  I get that.  It just seems uninspired to me; however, director Jon Favreau has taken this wildly improved film technology and hit it out of the park with his live-action version of The Jungle Book.  It’s remarkable entertainment.

I’m a film nerd from way back, and as a result, impressive technical filmmaking can take me out of a movie.  For instance, all the impressive, long takes in Birdman had me trying to figure out how they did them while watching the movie.  The flabbergasting tech on display here had the opposite effect; the digital jungle here is completely immersive and convincing from the film’s opening shot.  The Jungle Book is very much worth seeing in high end 3D.  This is very much a “how’d they do that” movie, but the tech is never distracting.  I’d love to see the making-of documentary on the eventual Blu-ray.

If we learned anything this spring from the abysmal Batman V Superman, it’s that all of the digital effects in the world don’t matter if they’re not in the service of a compelling story.  The Jungle Book has been filmed eight times previously (with another version coming from Warner Bros. in 2018), with the 1967 animated version probably being the most famous.  That was the last Disney animated film overseen by Walt himself before he passed, so it’s an important movie in terms of Disney lore. 

Newcomer Neel Sethi stars as the mancub Mowgli, lost in the jungle as a baby and raised by a pack of wolves as one of their own.  The kid is great in the role and even better when you realize he’s the only organically produced character in the film.  All the animals are CGI, which means Sethi did all his work on a soundstage in front of a green screen.  The voice cast is quite formidable (more on them in a moment), but the kid has no other actors to play off which would be hard for anybody to pull off, let alone a newbie.  Tom Hanks did all that solo stuff in Cast Away, but he was on a real island interacting with an actual environment.  The kid sells the audience on the reality he’s in and he’s terrific.

The villain is, of course, the scarred tiger Shere Khan (voiced with great menace by Idris Elba) who wants Mowgli dead.  The panther Bagheera (Sir Ben Kingsley) decides it’s time for Mowgli to go back to the human village for Mowgli’s own protection.  Along the way, the two are separated, which allows Mowgli to cross paths with Baloo the bear. (Bill Murray is genius casting.)  Circumstances will force Mowgli to choose his path, and he will have to face down his feared enemy.  It all works like a Swiss watch.

The voice cast also includes Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the python and Christopher Walken as the orangutan King Louie, both animals are supersized versions of the 1967 counterparts.  The film even manages to skillfully incorporate the songs “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” from the animated version.  The voice cast looks great on paper and they deliver.  It gave me a little bit of joy to hear the late, great Garry Shandling who voices a porcupine.

I’m not sure Favreau really gets his due as a filmmaker.  The most successful film series in play today is easily the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Favreau really set the tone for it with the fist Iron Man.  He fought to cast Robert Downey, Jr,. which wasn’t the slam dunk in 2008 that it seems today.  He’s the anti-Zack Snyder, and he set the MCU on its current path.  His last film, the foodie road picture Chef, was really terrific and a return to indie filmmaking for him.  Favreau is a director that can deliver big-hearted crowd-pleasers on huge and small scales, and that’s not nothing.  The Jungle Book is just as awesome a technical accomplishment as The Revenant is, but Favreau will never get the hero worship Inarritu receives.  He can make generous, big-hearted movies on a huge or intimate scale and very, very few people can lay claim to that.  He’s more than just a solid craftsman.  I think he’s the heir apparent to Bob Zemeckis.  I’d love to see Disney hand him one of their off-brand Star Wars stories they’re doing.

Fans who grew up with the classic animated version are going to be very happy with this, as will audiences in general.  It respects the source (as well as the Kipling stories they’re based on) but winds up being its own thing.  Disney’s really recently been hitting a nice stride of commercial hits that are also artistically satisfying.