The Jungle Book Review
Note: Considering how old and well known this story is, I figured putting out a spoiler warning is pretty useless. Nevertheless, I don’t go into detail about plot points specific to this particular adaptation, so this review is spoiler free!
“Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die. As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back; For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack” - The Law of the Jungle, by Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling’s original 1894 magnum opus is truly one of Literature’s greatest works. Drawing upon his experiences growing up and working in Colonial India, Kipling created a vivid series of stories about the Indian Jungle that enraptured generations of readers. A masterful wordsmith, he created a Jungle that was both terrifyingly dangerous and intoxicatingly inviting. He populated this world with anthropomorphic animals in order to teach children lessons in respect and morality, with memorable characters like Bagheera, Baloo, Shere Khan, Raksha, Kaa and of course, Mowgli, the Man-Cub. Like many, I fondly remember having it read to me as a child, and to this day it’s one of my all-time favourite books.
And also like many, I loved Disney’s animated 1967 take on the original story. It was an almost completely different beast from the original story, but it was a wonderful movie that, while lacking much of a plot, was nevertheless charming with it’s humour and its songs, and holds a special place in the hearts of millions of children and those like me who are children at heart.
And now here we are, almost half a century on from Disney’s initial animated effort, and once again, after some slightly less than memorable live action remakes in the 90s, the Mouse House has unleashed upon the world yet another. But this one delivers. Guys, this one meets the hype. It’s freaking phenomenal.
With game-changing, spectacular, photorealistic CGI and an impeccably picked cast, Jon Favreau delivers a marvelous adaptation of The Jungle Book for this generation - one that pays homage to it’s animated predecessor, draws thematic inspiration from its source material, all the while creating a compelling narrative of it’s own accord - which could very well be the definitive adaptation of Kipling’s timeless tale.
There were numerous ways they could’ve screwed this one up. This film is the latest in a long line of live action remakes that Disney is recently producing of it’s animated classics. Some have been better than others. Maleficent, for example, despite a stellar performance from Angelina Jolie, was so obsessed with putting a contemporary spin on a well-known antagonist, and rewriting events in order to make the titular villain more sympathetic, that it was utterly devoid of the original Sleeping Beauty’s charm. The outrageous amount of CGI didn’t help matters either, and it ended up looking like a fake mess. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland remake, meanwhile had issues with a meandering plot. Last year’s Cinderella, however, was a breath of fresh air. In deciding to make a faithful adaptation of the animated classic, Kenneth Branagh’s movie was received well by both critics and audiences.
It’s thus that adapting the Jungle Book posed a tricky situation for Jon Favreau, and screenwriter Justin Marks. Had this movie been overly faithful to the 1967 animation, modern audiences would probably scoff at it. However nostalgically people remember talking animals singing about the Bare Necessities of life, a whimsical, live action musical with a lack of threat probably wouldn’t cut it. Too faithful to Kipling’s original text, and it would be considered too “dark and gritty” (as is all the rage today in Hollywood) for the typical Disney demographic. It would also probably lose the trademark Disney charm that people so fondly remember the original with. So what did they do? They combined the best of both worlds, of course, to great success. While setting a new bar for the standards of CGI in movies today.
As charming as the 1967 version was, it had a very basic plot and lacked a good deal of narrative heft. As befitting the works of Walt Disney, it was very child-friendly, which it ought to have been. But as a result, stakes were significantly lowered. Shere Khan ran away from fire after being distracted by those Beatles vultures. Again, very cute and child friendly - which isn’t to say Favreau’s version isn’t for kids, because it certainly is. Show this to any child and I bet they’d be totally enraptured by what’s unfolding on-screen. But Justin Marks, using themes from Kipling’s novels, lends a great deal of gravitas to the screenplay, and gives more depth to characters like Shere Khan and make them genuinely evil. There’s nothing particularly horrifying, but certain sequences may have especially young children, under 10 perhaps, holding their parents hands. It’s totally fine though - using more “mature” themes allows the audience to feel a real sense of danger, as well as a more clear, concise, and centralized journey for Mowgli to undertake from the start of the film to the end, especially in comparison to the animated movie. The wolf mantra heard repetitively throughout the movie is taken from one of Kipling’s original poems from the books, and allows to solidify the movie’s messages of the strength in both individuality as well as companionship.
Marks’ screenplay at different times changes the tonality of the movie from a humorous comedy, heartfelt emotional drama, to a thrilling revenge story, with the lush jungle as a backdrop. But remarkably, just like Kipling’s original story, these shifts in tonality don’t seem jarring at all. Scenes and sequences move smoothly from one to the other, and even the songs (the film includes “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na be Like You” from the original - it would be sacrilegious if they didn’t). which some people found to feel a little odd from the rest of the movie - I thought were spontaneous and added beautifully to the film.
The CGI in this movie, truly, is breathtaking, and arguably the best in any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s ridiculous to believe that every tree, every leaf, every drop of water, every strand of hair on the animals’ body, was created on a computer. “Location shooting” wasn’t the vast Jungles of India. It was a studio in LA. It’s clear to see how painstaking the process must have been to the animators, but their hard work definitely paid off. I don’t think we’ve seen such a leap in CGI technology since Avatar in 2009 or Life of Pi in 2012. At times it definitely felt like I was watching a nature documentary, as opposed to a fictional fantasy story. There are even some shots where water would splash upon the camera lens, adding a great depth of depth and immersion to the cinematic experience.
The cast was, as I previously mentioned, was impeccably picked. Ben Kingsley is wonderful as the stern but loving fatherly Bagheera, complete with his RP accent. Bill Murray is just perfect as the laid back and easy-going Baloo. There’s not many people who could’ve held a candle to Phil Harris and his original version of the “Bare Necessities”, but Murray rendition is just as brilliant. His role as Baloo is probably his best work in ages. Likewise is Christopher Walken’s King Louie, now a Gigantopithecus ape, since Louis Prima’s orangutan wasn’t native to India. And his cover of “I Wan’na Be Like You” is just perfect. His voice and accent fit the song so well. Lupita Nyong’o brings a warmth and motherly love to Raksha, and the seductive, dulcet tones of Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa really give you chills. As for the antagonist, the great Shere Khan, Idris Elba brings a menacing East London-accented gravitas to the iconic tiger. He’s a genuinely terrifying villain, and his interplay with Mowgli and delivery of lines has to be commended. There’s absolutely nothing to complain about the voice talent on display here.
Which brings us to basically our only human character in the film, Neel Sethi’s Mowgli. This kid is just brilliant. He portrays Mowgli with just the right amount of naivete, enthusiasm, humor, heart, bravery, and cuteness. We watch or read the Jungle Book through the eyes of a child, and Neel is the perfect audience surrogate, reacting like we would with a child’s amazement and wonder at the extraordinary events happening around him. On the rare occasions that his delivery of lines may slip up, or his eyes are looking in another direction it’s important to keep in mind that he was a) only 10 years old during filming, and b) a kid with hardly any acting experience acting not along with other humans, but literally nothing but green screen and boxes and tennis balls. It’s extraordinary how he managed to carry the whole film by himself, and you can’t help but think that if they cast the wrong kid, the entire movie would’ve probably fallen flat on it’s face. There are seasoned adult actors who act in front of a green screen and come off as utterly wooden and lifeless. Neel knocked it out of the park. An incredibly talented young man, who I’m sure has great things ahead for him.
I was initially hesitant about the idea of a live action remake of the Jungle Book, but safe to say I was more than satisfied with this film. It’s one of those rare movies that I can seriously find no serious fault with. If anything, I only wish we could see those Beatles tribute band Vultures in live action. Apparently Favreau even planned for Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr to appear as cameos, but sadly the scheduling didn’t work out.
But the movie as a whole was spectacular - fantastic voice talent, brilliant photorealistic CGI, and a heartfelt, emotional narrative at it’s core. It’s a wonderful story for families, and is just 2 hours full of pure escapism. A massive well done to all the cast and crew.
All thoughts turn now to Andy Serkis and WB’s completely separate adaptation, Jungle Book, now since delayed from next October to October 2018. Set to be closer to the spirit of Kipling’s novel even more than this one, it’s hard not to get excited with talent such as Serkis, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, and Benedict Cumberbatch behind it. There’s also a sequel planned for this one, with the same creative talent returning, so it’s all the more reason to get excited, especially with the wealth of Kipling’s original stories left to adapt. But those are still a long way away, and for now, we can rest content with what I believe to be the most definitive adaptation of Kipling’s text. A masterpiece.