When Jon Favreau shifted from directing smaller character-based films (like Made) to larger, more special-effects-driven films, he at first did so with a strong attachment to using traditional practical effects over CGI. (I never saw 2005’s Zathura, but I well remember all of the pre-release interviews with Mr. Favreau in which he spoke of his love for the power of practical effects.) Both Iron Man and Iron Man 2 featured some incredible CGI effects, but I think the effects in both films worked as well as they did because they were skillfully combined with many practical effects, thus creating an immersive illusion for the audience. And so it’s fascinating now to see how Mr. Favreau approached the creation of The Jungle Book, a film that, other than the performance of one young boy, has been almost entirely created in the digital realm, including all the animal characters and all of the jungle settings. This approach, overseen by Mr. Favreau and clearly involving the hard work of hundreds of artists and technicians, has resulted in an extraordinary achievement.
Just like the Disney animated version, this new The Jungle Book tells the story of the young boy Mowgli. As a baby, he is orphaned in the jungle, but the panther Bagheera saves him and brings him to be raised by a pack of wolves led by Akela and Raksha. This “man cub” grows up in the jungle. But when the vicious tiger Shere Khan threatens the wolves for protecting him, Mowgli decides to leave the jungle and allows Bagheera to escort him to the nearby man village. But Shere Khan will not give up his vendetta so easily.
I don’t have any strong attachment to Disney’s animated The Jungle Book. I remember liking it as a kid, but it’s not one of the Disney movies that I watched over and over, and it’s been well over twenty years since I have seen it last. I remember the basic story and some of the songs and not much beyond that. So while Disney studio’s modern desire to create live-action remakes of seemingly all of their classic animated films puzzles me, I was totally open to a new version of this story.
And to call this a live-action remake is somewhat disingenuous, because, as noted above, other than the real boy Neel Sethi as Mowgli, this is an almost entirely animated film. It’s just that it has been animated using cutting-edge CGI techniques, rather than traditional hand-drawn animation.
The result is astounding. Mr. Favreau and his team have crafted an almost perfectly photo-real creation. You completely believe that you are in the jungles of India, not a studio in Hollywood. And each and every one of the animals is perfectly convincing. This is the true magic trick of the film, in that the animals look completely like real animals, and then they talk. Once an animal starts to talk on-screen, you’d think the illusion would be broken as that would make the otherwise real-looking animal suddenly seem obviously fake. And yet, the amazing artisans who created this film found a way to allow the animals to speak in a way that never becomes silly, but that instead remains entirely convincing. It’s quite extraordinary.
The voice-cast assembled to bring these animal characters to life are, to the last, perfect. Whoever had the idea to cast Bill Murray as Baloo is a genius, and Mr. Murray doesn’t disappoint. He is perfect at bringing to life the lazy, lackadaisical bear who nonetheless has a core of tenderness. Ben Kingsley is amazing as Bagheera, bringing the panther tremendous nobility and power while also showing clearly his affection for Mowgli. Idris Elba is instantly iconic as Shere Khan, giving him a regal power matched with a ruthless viciousness. Lupita Nyong’o is amazing as the wolf Raksha, and her scenes with Mowgli are some of the film’s most powerfully emotional. Giancarlo Esposito is also phenomenal as the stern but honorable wolf pack-leader Akela. I loved Scarlett Johansson’s brief appearance as the seductive snake Kaa (and stick around for the end credits to get to hear Ms. Johansson sing a great song as Kaa). Christopher Walken is everything you want him to be as the Gigantopithecus King Louie, and his bizarre yet marvelous rendition of “I Wanna Be Like You” is a show-stopper. I also have to note the late, great Garry Shandling’s brief but perfect appearances as the porcupine Ikki. (Sigh. I miss Garry Shandling.)
The one actual human on-screen is the young boy Neel Sethi, and he delivers a marvelous performance. Whenever I praise the work of a young actor I always give a large share of the credit to his/her director, and so bravo to Mr. Sethi and Mr. Favreau for together creating such a wonderful, rich performance. I have seen many seasoned adult actors fail to be able to convincingly act with CGI creations, but Mr. Sethi is terrific. He fully buys into the reality of the artificial world around him, and because he believes it, we the audience believe it.
The film’s one weakness is its ending. Some SPOILERS ahead here, folks, so proceed with caution.
I don’t remember how the animated The Jungle Book ended, but watching this new version, I thought I was watching a coming of age tale. This carried within it a bittersweet aspect, because while we know Mowgli is happy and loved in the jungle, the story seemed to be about his realizing that he did not belong there. Shere Khan is the villain, but he is correct when he points out to the other animals that a man has no place in the jungle, and that in fact man is a threat to the jungle. Khan is proven correct as Mowgli’s actions at the end of the film almost result in the burning down of the entire jungle.
And so I was very surprised that, after Mowgli’s final confrontation with Shere Khan, in which he embraces the “red flower” (fire) — that which all the animals of the jungle fear, but which is his birthright as a man — Mowgli doesn’t leave the jungle, but instead seems to return to exactly where he was at the start of the story: living with the wolf pack and running with the wolf cubs. Huh? Is the idea that Mowgli will stay in the jungle forever? It feels like, at the end, the filmmakers abandoned any of the ideas they had been exploring in favor of the simple, easy ending. While The Jungle Book has some scary parts, for much of the film it felt to me like a near-perfect “family” film, one that would appeal to kids and adults alike. But the ending is the one time when I felt the film decided to abandon complexity and settle for being a simple kids film. I’m sure kids will be thrilled by the simple, happy ending. But as an adult, I was surprised by what seemed like a big step backwards for Mowgli as a character and the film as a whole.
Two other quick notes: 1) I loved the new version of the Disney logo at the beginning. (It looks like it is a hand-animated version of the usual CGI logo, a wonderful introduction to this CGI version of a hand-drawn animated original film.) 2) You definitely need to stay to watch the entire end credits, as you get to hear some great songs and watch some wonderfully playful additional animation.
I almost missed The Jungle Book in theatres, and I’m glad I caught it before it left. The film is a wonderful story and a thrillingly pushes the envelope of what can be accomplished by CGI effects. Bravo to Jon Favreau and his team.