As a moviegoer one of the best experiences you can have is unexpectedly discovering a wonderful film. It may be a movie you flippantly dismissed. Maybe one you had absolutely no expectations for. But then you see it and you’re blindsided by how good it truly is. Everything I just described defines my experience with Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book”.
This semi-live action remake of Disney’s 1967 animated classic may be my biggest surprise of the year. On the surface remaking this story through live action and a ton of CGI seems unnecessary. But while it has been years since I’ve seen the original, Favreau’s freshened up version pulls just as much from Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 stories as the animated feature. And it actually leaves a much stronger and more satisfying impression. Again, something I never expected.
Debuting young actor Neel Seethi plays a “man-cub” named Mowgli. Orphaned as a child and raised by a wolf named Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), Mowgli lives among the pack trying to fit in but knowing he is unlike the other wolves. A black panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), who first discovered Mowgli as a baby, now trains him to live like the wolves while avoiding his ‘man tricks’ as a means to survive. Despite the good intentions, this only accentuates Mowgli’s human-born inferiority.
When the dry season arrives a vicious human-hating Bengal tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba) breaks a longstanding water truce and states he will kill Mowgli once the rains come. Fearing for his wolf family’s safety, Mowgli leaves his pack and ventures into the jungle, but he quickly realizes the dangers of Shere Kahn’s violent and dogged determination.
The Justin Marks screenplay bounces back and forth between perilous thrills and lighthearted comedy and that’s no complaint. It works because he always keeps the focus on Mowgli and his venture to find and understand where he fits in. It’s a simple but heartwarming story that never flatlines and never insults its audience by dumbing itself down. It’s one of those rare family treats that easily speaks to every age group.
The story is also written in a way that allows Favreau and his animation team to flex their computer-generated muscles. Let me be clear, this film looks amazing. The effects are nothing short of extraordinary. Shot entirely on Los Angeles sound stages and employing the latest innovations in motion capture, photorealistic rendering, and CGI, Favreau’s undertaking was incredibly ambitious and could have easily failed. Instead he creates a gorgeous and sublimely realistic world that shows off one incredible location after another and that makes talking animals as believable as possible.
And speaking of those talking animals, the voice work is another huge plus. Kingsley, Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson as a sultry serpent, Christopher Walken as a gigantopithecus mob boss – they’re all excellent. But the standouts are Bill Murray as a big brown sloth bear and Elba’s terrorizing Shere Kahn. Murray’s Baloo allows him the vocal space to be exactly what you would want from him – Bill Murray playing a bear. On the other end Elba brings such danger and menace to the film’s tiger antagonist.
But it all comes back to Seethi and his wonderful debut performance. The lone human character of any significance, Seethi is asked to carry a pretty big load. He manages wonderfully. His performance is one of many things that make Favreau’s project so satisfying. Toss in its great characters, good story, perfect pacing, and mind-blowing special effects. There are two songs which feel wedged in and a little jarring and the plot does rely on a couple of ‘conveniences’, but in no way do those minor gripes ruin what may have been the most pleasant surprise of 2016.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS