Review: Disney's 'The Jungle Book' Brings the Animated Classic to Life
by Jeremy Kirk
April 15, 2016
There's little doubt why Disney chose their 1942 take on Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book to update for 2016 audiences. The animated movie is beloved, loaded with adventure, and bringing the story's wide array of animals to photorealistic life seems like a suitable challenge for any team of digital effects magicians, especially in the modern age. The Jungle Book isn't Disney's first attempt at adapting one of their animated classics to live action, but it's the most loyal to the original film we've seen from the studio thus far. Full of wonderful adventure and superb effects, The Jungle Book is a fantastic update that will keep fans of the original completely satisfied, especially if they love Christopher Walken's singing voice.
Keeping true to Kipling's original, 1894 collection of stories, the film centers on young Mowgli, a "man cub" played by young newcomer Neel Sethi. Mowgli has been raised from infancy by a pack of wolves in the Indian jungle and has learned the language and social structure of the animals from the wolf pack as well as Bagheera, a wise black panther voiced by Ben Kingsley. All seems right in Mowgli's world despite the animals looking down on his "tricks," the man-made devices he builds to aid in his survival in the jungle.
This concern for Mowgli's growth into a full man is accentuated with the arrival of Shere Khan, a tiger voiced by Idris Elba. Khan has encountered man before. As evidenced by the burn scar on the tiger's face, he has encountered man's "red flower", what the animals call "fire", as well. Shere Khan's fear of what Mowgli may one day become – as well as the tiger's shaky status as king of the jungle – turns to a hatred for the man cub and anyone who protects the young boy. Mowgli's wolf parents agree with Bagheera that the boy must return to his own, human village, and the panther and boy set out across the jungle. Much adventure and many talking animals are to follow.
The film is directed by Jon Favreau who, despite a few false moves in the blockbuster realm, has rarely delivered a work without an ample amount of excitement. I think it's time we all forgave the director for that Cowboys & Aliens misstep a few years ago. With The Jungle Book his direction and storytelling prowess take a rather straightforward approach. The screenplay by Justin Marks seems to move the animated film into the live-action world almost verbatim, happy-go-lucky songs included, and the fleshing out of the original film's story chooses development rather than pointless subplots.
These additions build the jungle, animals, and Mowgli's world to life-like proportions despite the average moviegoer's detachment from so many talking animals. Here the jungle and Mowgli's place within it explain themselves through the story, an added bonus for anyone sitting back to enjoy the high adventure that results from it. That and the childlike tone never keep the adventure found in The Jungle Book from ever delivering past a certain level of excitement. Around every tree is a new opportunity to get the film's blood pumping, and Favreau and Marks never seem to miss an opportunity.
The excitement and potential for it are evident in every scene of the film, but the filmmakers hold true to the original's lighthearted atmosphere, as well. This includes bringing in some of the friendlier characters from the original like the baby elephant, and not shying from the handful of songs that have almost become more famous than the film itself. You don't check out whenever Bill Murray's Baloo starts singing to himself about "Bear Necessities" or when Walken's King Louie breaks out into a full-fledged musical number.
What acceptance there is for the characters and actions in The Jungle Book is made all the easier by the stunning work the digital effects artists deliver in bringing these animals to life. Save for their faces which speak with a broad assortment of actors' voices, the animals are incredibly lifelike. Digital effects still can't perfect a human personality into those faces, but the photorealism of a majority of animals seen here makes it all the more acceptable when Sethi's Mowgli interacts with them. It also heightens the inherent danger that comes during the moments when Mowgli's world is anything but singing & dancing through the jungle.
The voice acting at work here makes even that much more exciting with every, familiar beat. They are all recognizable, but the characters still grow with each line of dialogue delivered. Murray strikes gold with pretty much every swing of his jib. His built-in cynicism and wit give Baloo something of a conman quality, and it works. Baloo is a conman here but a lovable conman.
Kingsley and Elba give rare bouts of strength through their voices. That lack of personality in the animals' faces does give Elba's Shere Khan some unintentionally comical moments of silence. It works so well with the tone of the film, though, that you almost view the awkward bits with the film's villain as intentional.
Walken sings "Ooh-bi-doo," and that's all you need to know about his voice for King Louie. The character, itself, has morphed that cute orangutan voiced by Louis Prima (in the original animated movie) into a nightmarish giant with gross fur. You can thank that nice team of digital effects artists for the nightmares King Louie will give your kids this time around.
Lupita Nyong'o and Giancarlo Esposito are rock solid as the voices of Raksha and Akela, respectively, Mowgli's wolf parents. Of the main-ish voice cast, theirs are the voices you don't quite recognize, and this quickly helps you connect with the characters, almost as much as Mowgli does. Almost as much as Sethi does, as well, which speaks to how well the young actor handles his surrounding characters and the job at hand. Nice work from him as well as Favreau for making this character + actor marriage anything but just another kid playing a kid.
It is unfortunate Scarlett Johansson couldn't have more to offer as the python, Kaa, a character that played a much more villainous and important role in the original movie. Her one scene here offers little, unfortunately, besides scene connection and exposition. Kaa is really the only character in this that falls flat.
That's saying a lot for an updated, live-action version of an animated classic, especially one that follows the original's story so closely. The Jungle Book hits the right tone and, for the most part, all the right notes with which this tone requires. You knew Favreau knows how to mix comedy and action with the Iron Man movies regardless of what you thought of the second film. You knew the director had a handle with adventure films for kids. See Zathura for reference. Disney Studios is well aware of the right filmmakers for the jobs at hand even when those jobs require treading on familiar ground. The Jungle Book is proof the studio knows what they're doing to deliver more than just the bare, cinematic necessities.