Review: Jon Favreau's 'Jungle Book' is a rich and rewarding family fable
Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book has been adapted to film numerous times over the years. The 1942 live-action film, which you can see via Hulu Plus if you have it, remains beautiful and mysterious even now, while the 1967 Disney animated version is one of their most iconic films. Years ago, when I was still new to Los Angeles, there was a stretch of about 18 months where my writing partner and I shared an apartment with a married couple named Dave and Laura. Laura was a preposterously sweet woman, and she had a keen affection for Disney animation. In particular, she loved Mowgli and his gangly, lanky frame, all elbows and angles. About halfway through last night’s press screening of the new Jon Favreau version, I couldn’t help but laugh, thinking about how much Laura’s going to love Neel Sethi, who stars as Mowgli, because he looks like he was plucked right off of some animator's drawing board.
Overall, I have mixed feelings about Disney’s new push to turn all of their animated films into live-action movies. It’s another way of strip-mining their own library, and the results have been wildly uneven so far. Cinderella, for example, struck me as a solid retelling of the original story, but there was nothing about Kenneth Branagh’s film that felt like live-action was essential or that illuminated the earlier Disney version of the story. It was fine, which is way more than I can say about the disturbingly ugly Alice In Wonderland that Tim Burton directed. Walking into The Jungle Book, I was worried that it would either be paint-by-numbers or that it would be a big empty style exercise, and instead, I walked away from it with one word running through my head repeatedly…
There’s nothing that Jon Favreau does as a director or that Justin Marks does as a writer that is wildly different than other CGI-heavy spectacles we’ve seen recently, but the way the elements come together is more impressive than I expected. It’s mind-boggling that this entire thing was shot on soundstages using greenscreens. Favreau’s jungle feels like a real place, but it’s heightened and stylized and it feels like a perfect fit for the talking animals who make up the majority of the cast. The animals themselves are very realistic, but again… small details are exaggerated or heightened in order to create a unified visual world, one that is almost hyper-real. Favreau’s never pushed things this far technically before, with most of his films grounded in the real world, even when they have fantasy elements. Here, he creates this entire dreamscape that comes alive from the very first frame of the movie, and it feels like it is a real living environment.
That wouldn’t matter if the characters fell flat, of course, or if the story failed to connect the emotional dots. Justin Marks has done a very nice job adapting the Kipling stories, using the 1967 animated film as a structural springboard. I find Kipling fascinating as an author, and I like that he took a shot at crafting his own fables using his childhood impressions of India as a jumping-off point. In Kipling’s book, he tells three different stories about Mowgli. There are elements in the stories that will be familiar to people who only know the Disney animated film, but overall, Kipling’s stories are very different. There is one moment in particular which I’ll discuss below that makes this an almost direct refutation of some of Kipling’s ideas, and those choices speak volumes about how we’ve changed as people since the days when Kipling first published these stories.
The casting of this one is spot-on, and wee little Neel Sethi is a perfect Mowgli. He gives a very funny, very physical performance, and for much of the film, he’s the only real thing you’re looking at. He accepts the truth of the digital world around him with such clear-eyed belief that it sells it for us as viewers. I believe in Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and Baloo (Bill Murray) and Shere Khan (Idris Elba) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and King Louie (Christopher Walken) because Neel Sethi believes in them. It’s that simple. They cast the right kid, and makes the emotional journey of the film very easy to follow because he is so convincing. It’s a very good voice cast, and Bill Murray’s version of Baloo the bear is everything I hoped it would be and more. He’s sweet and charming and a total con man and lazy and hilarious all at once. There’s a real easy joy to the scenes where it’s just Mowgli and Baloo together, and Murray seems to really enjoy the back-and-forth with this kid. I would have never in a million years thought to cast Christopher Walken as a giant orangutan, but he’s a perfect fit for King Louie. Both Murray and Walken get to sing the songs from the 1967 film, but in their own way. Neither one is what I call a full-blown musical number. It’s interesting to see how Favreau approached that, and I think he nails it. We get just enough, and in both cases, it feels right for the characters.
Parents of very young children should consider this one carefully. The scene with Kaa is fairly intense and Shere Khan is often very scary, both in terms of menace and jump scares. There’s something about putting this real little boy in the midst of these outrageous situations that makes it feel heavier than it does with the same situations in the animated version. Favreau does such a good job that it may actually be too much for some younger viewers. We saw it in 3D, and it may be the most immersive 3D experience I’ve had at the theater since Avatar. Even the closing credits end up feeling like a very playful nod to the distance between the adaptation that was overseen by Walt Disney and the way this new one was created.
If you’re spoiler-adverse, bail out here, because I want to discuss a choice that was made by Marks and Favreau. As with the original Disney film, this movie deals with Bagheera the panther trying to return Mowgli to the man village for his own safety, worried that Shere Khan will hunt and kill him. In Kipling’s story, Mowgli’s decision to embrace fire as a weapon is what gives him primacy in the jungle, and he comes into his own as a man, willing to wield fire as a weapon. He suddenly stands supreme in the jungle, and it feels like man triumphs over nature by use of this awesome tool. In the Disney cartoon, there’s a lightning strike that ignites a tree, and Mowgli ties some flaming branches to Shere Khan’s tail. In the end of the cartoon, Mowgli finally heads into the man village, led by a beautiful girl, and it feels like Mowgli finally shaking off his time in the wild and embracing his own nature by becoming a man. In this version of the story, Favreau and Marks turn the Kipling version and the Disney version inside out. Mowgli makes the choice to use fire as a weapon, and for a moment, it does indeed make him the king of the jungle. But when he’s challenged by Shere Khan on it, Mowgli looks around and sees fear on the faces of the various animals who have gathered, and he realizes the distance that fire creates between him and the natural world that has been his home since he was a baby. He ends up rejecting it, reclaiming his own place in the pack, and at the film’s end, he’s still living in the jungle. It seems like a small thing, but it makes a huge thematic difference. This Mowgli belongs in the jungle, and while he may be a man, he will never grow into Man, which is something totally different. In this film, with the story it tells and the way it tells it, that’s the right choice. Kipling would most likely be horrified, but this is very clearly its own thing, no matter what inspiration it draws from earlier tellings.
For those who think making a film like this is easy, I’d recommend you look at the last time Disney tried to make a live-action version of this story, with Stephen Sommers directing Jason Scott Lee in an insipid and confusing action movie that bears only the slightest resemblance to any previously told version of this story. With no talking animals at all, it’s more of a Tarzan movie than it is a Jungle Book movie. What they’ve done here is quite lovely, and the score by John Debney and the cinematography by Bill Pope and the truly gorgeous production design by Christopher Glass all come together beautifully to help elevate Favreau’s vision and make it something special. Warner Bros. and Andy Serkis should be nervous about their own motion-capture animated version, because audiences are going to embrace this one in a big way, and it’s going to be very hard for another version told so soon after this one to really distinguish itself. I suspect this one’s going to be emerge as the king of the pack.
The Jungle Book opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.