The Jungle Book (2016)

The legend will never be the same

With last year’s modern-day rendering of Cinderella (2015) bringing in the big bucks, Walt Disney Pictures have (conveniently) added a slew of forthcoming adaptations to their schedule, including a Beauty and the Beast remake (slated for a 2017 release). The next classic to receive this 21st Century makeover is the 1967 animated flick The Jungle Book — very much inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s timeless paperback of the same name. Now an all-new live-action adventure, The Jungle Book masterfully blends powerful storytelling with state-of-the-art technology, filmmakers transporting audiences to an enthralling and immersive world of breathtaking landscapes, photo-realistic beasts and lush forestry environments, this craftsmanship contrasted with actual photography in the form of Mowgli (played by newcomer Neel Sethi).

The Jungle Book essentially tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a human boy raised by Indian wolves — parented by mother wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and the pack’s alpha-male Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) — brought to the canine family when he was only a mere infant by the black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Having been raised a man-cub, Mowgli learns to survive in the wilderness, hunting for food and adopting a wolf pack mentality (one of extreme loyalty and devotion). But when the fearsome Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a Bengal tiger scarred by the viciousness of man, threatens Mowgli’s life — as the law of the jungle forbids man from co-inhabiting with animals — Mowgli is forced to re-unite with his own tribe and leave his beloved home behind. Setting off to locate the man-village, Mowgli (left to fend for himself for the very first time) embarks on a journey of self-discovery as he crosses the dense and treacherous Indian forest in search of his people, encountering an array of creatures, both friend and foe, along the way. Making matters worse, Mowgli is being hunted by the ferocious Shere Khan, who will stop at nothing to end the young child’s life.

Marvel's Black Panther makes a cameo
Marvel’s Black Panther makes a cameo

As the camera smoothly tracks from the Disney logo (which looks to be Cinderella’s castle) right into a tangled leafy terrain, a couple of things quickly become apparent: 1) the utter richness of the digital world — which one could honestly swear was real, and 2) the spirit of the source material. It’s evident that director Jon Favreau, Iron Man (2008), and his entire production team have done an outstanding job in bringing Kipling’s ageless saga to life as The Jungle Book manages to re-capture that old-school storybook magic by means of contemporary filmmaking mechanics, the remarkable CGI-enncrusted vistas and beautifully rendered flora and fauna showcasing the mind-blowing artistry of leading-edge cinema — perhaps the true stars of this film are the whiz kids behind the scenes (or should I say screens), led by VFX supervisors Robert Legato, Hugo (2011), and Adam Valdez, Maleficent (2014). The extraordinary level of detail in both the sights and sounds, cross-bread with the wonderfully textured cinematography — by director of photography Bill Pope, The Matrix (1999) — will surely keep older viewers suspended in disbelief, while the moral life lessons (handed out by furry fellas), and the movie’s sheer razzamatazz factor, is bound to entertain pre-teens throughout — even if The Jungle Book clocks up at nearly 120 minutes.

The added photo-realism, while strengthening the narrative heft, does make certain chunks significantly more frightening (particularly for toddlers); a slight deviation from the ’67 cartoon I’d say. This shift in tone makes Shere Khan especially menacing, terrorizing Mowgli with his razor-sharp teeth and gnarly claws, while Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is depicted as an overgrown tree-engulfing python with a lethally hypnotic gaze. We also come face-to-face with the ‘Godfather’ of the wild, King Louie (Christopher Walken), an unkempt Gigantopithecus who stands at a grossly intimidating 20-feet-tall, this prehistoric ape set on coercing Mowgli into giving up the secret to the elusive ‘red flower,’ a deadly force that only humans can summon: fire. A sequence where our heroes wrestle a sea of feisty computer-generated monkeys in a crumbling ancient city made up of vine choked temples (think Indiana Jones), while probably too scary for the kiddies, is worth the price of admission alone. Furthermore, a superb Christopher Walken, Hairspray (2007), voices the King-Kong sized smooth-talker with a 1950s ‘Noo Yawk’ accent, ensuring that this version of Louie is nothing like the toe-tappin’ Bornean orangutan presented some 49-years earlier.

'I must sssay, you're looking particularly ssscrumptious today.'
‘I must sssay, you’re looking particularly ssscrumptious today.’

But look, filmmakers haven’t forgotten to drop in those comic-relief staples and cutesy characters synonymous with the Mouse House which have obviously been included to lighten the mood; you’ve got your kid-friendly wisecracking critters and a honey-lovin’ rascal bear, Baloo; Bill Murray, Ghostbusters (1984), injecting the popular character with his very own brand of cheeky wit and sarcasm — if I didn’t know any better, I’d say that this lounger was Winnie the Pooh all grown-up! And to further ease Mowgli’s perilous trek and the film’s often inhospitable atmosphere, Disney have decided to throw in a couple of tracks from their much-loved hand-drawn incarnation (for no good reason): we have ‘The Bare Necessities’ and the jazzy song-and-dance number ‘I Wan’na Be Like You’ — the latter sticking out significantly more than the former. I do understand that these musical tunes have been shoehorned in for branding reasons *cough* Disney *cough*, but they do honestly feel out of place here, jarring some of the film’s believability which has clearly been worked on to the nth degree — well, that’s if one can look past the talking animals.

The voice talent is stellar all around, this lineup probably being the strongest for a live-action computer-animated feature to date. Idris Elba, Zootopia (2016), oozes with malevolence as the evil Shere Khan, the English actor fashioning the best Disney villain to hit the silver screen in over a decade, while Bill Murray’s Baloo can charm the skin off a snake, his playful quips and rollicking persona enlivening a narrative that’s often dark and heavy. Then we have Neel Sethi as Mowgli — the only actual person to physically star in the film. To Sethi’s credit, he isn’t all too bad; that’s considering his age, the difficulty of having to act/react against next to nothing and that fact that The Jungle Book is the Indian-American actor’s first feature film. With that said though, Sethi does lack empathy in parts and comes across as being a tad too young to embody the orphan boy — it’s kinda ironic how the only human member of the cast just so happens to be the least convincing.

'Stop monkeyin' around, kid!'
‘Stop monkeyin’ around, kid!’

The Jungle Book comes as a breath of fresh air (perhaps more filmmakers should take a leaf out of Favreau’s book), working as a watertight example of how Hollywood can modernize a treasured classic without trampling over anyone’s childhood: it’s fun and compelling, brings iconic imagery to life in fresh and exiting ways, and most importantly, tells an engaging story. Enhancing the movie’s overall wow factor is the seamless integration of live-action photography and up-to-the-minute computer wizardry, transporting viewers to a loaded primeval setting populated by lifelike animals. But ultimately it’s the soul of Kipling’s 1894 masterwork that truly tips this one over the edge. So folks, those who grew up with the Disney VHS in their library of faves can forget about their worries and their strife as Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is a triumphant filmic achievement and, while a bit scary for youngsters, may very well be the best version of the time-honored tale ever committed to screen.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by S-Littner

The Jungle Book is released through Disney Australia