Directed by Jon Favreau
Written by Justin Marks based on the books by Rudyard Kipling
Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito, Gary Shandling, and Brighton Rose
Runtime: 105 minutes
Disney seem committed to remaking their classic animated films into live-action pictures with a vengeance. Alice in Wonderland was okay, Malificent was very good and Cinderella had its moments, but now with The Jungle Book, a live-action retelling of the 1967 animated film, there is finally a reason to be happy they’re going to all this trouble. This isn’t the first live-action telling of Rudyard Kipling’s series of books, the first published in 1894. That honor goes to Zoltan Korda’s great 1942 film Jungle Book, nor will it be the last, with another in the works for 2018 which is to be the directorial debut of actor Andy Serkis (who did the motion-capture acting for Golum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, as well as Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 version of King Kong and Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and presumably episodes VIII and IX).
This film keeps largely to the Disney animated film’s story, which sticks to the jungle and Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) and eschews the part of the story where he goes to live in the man village (the central story to Korda’s film). Mowgli, orphaned when his father is killed in a battle with Shere Khan (Idris Elba) (which left Kahn burned and blinded in his left eye), is discovered by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and taken to be raised by a wolf pack, led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and mothered by Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). Shere Khan returns, seeking water during a heavy drought, to find Mowgli there. He states that when the ‘water truce’ has ended (a pact animals make so all of them can share what little water there is when the river gets low enough to expose ‘peace rock’) he will kill the ‘man-cub’.
When the rains come again and the ‘water truce’ ends, Shere Kahn is on the hunt, so Bagheera takes Mowgli to live in the man village. They are separated and Mowgli meets Baloo (Bill Murray), a friendly and lazy sloth bear who gets Mowgli to get honeycombs for him. They form a deep friendship and by the time Bagheera finds him, Mowgli has decided he doesn’t want to leave the jungle. From there, he’s kidnapped by monkeys and taken to King Louie (Christopher Walken) and ultimately decides to face Shere Kahn.
The script, by first time feature writer Justin Marks, is fantastic. He keeps the audience in the realm of the familiar without ever making it boring or predictable. He infuses the characters with more depth than previous versions, making each one feel unique to this picture and not extensions of their animated counterparts. He even works in a couple of the iconic songs from the animated film without them feeling obtrusive or unnecessary. He also makes sure he uses every character to their fullest, not just shoe-horning them in because people will recognize them.
The cast has a lot to do with realizing the full potential of these characters. By populating the film with actors who seldom, if ever, turn in bad performances, Favreau solidifies his film and these enduring characters. Idris Elba is excellent as the malevolent Shere Kahn; Ben Kingsley utilizes his knack for quiet wisdom perfectly for Bagheera; Bill Murray is a blast as Baloo, stepping into a role previously held by Phil Harris, Jack Benny’s bandleader and constant foil. The greatest joy from the voice work comes from Christopher Walken’s raucous King Louie. And at the center of all of this is Neel Sethi, a 13-year-old Indian-American who is making his feature debut here. Setting aside how refreshing it was to see someone of Indian descent playing Mowgli for the first time since Sabu in 1942, the casting of Sethi was a stroke of genius. He has the face and demeanor of an innocent, a boy who knows nothing but the simplicity of the jungle and is genuinely confused by Shere Kahn’s want to kill him just because he’s a man-cub. Sethi embodies this innocence and relates and reacts to everything perfectly. He is a true talent and an excellent find.
This would never have come together, of course, without the sure and stead hand of director Jon Favreau. Having directed such disparate films as the Gen-X cult favorite Made to the great but underseen Zathura: A Space Adventure, the now perennial joy Elf and one of the best comic book films ever made, Iron Man along with its lackluster sequel Iron Man 2, he was the perfect choice to bring this classic fantasy to life once again. He is smart enough to know not to let the terror of Kahn overwhelm the film, allowing for lighter moments but he also never lets the audience forget that the threat is still looming over everything. He paces out the film so that the action and fear is counterbalanced by relaxed and funny moments (notably with Baloo). He directs this largely CG environment well and keeps his only human (and non-animated) character at ease with that environment. Sethi never looks composited or confused about eye-lines or geography either of the environment or the characters surrounding him, and Favreau has to be complimented greatly for achieving that with any actor, let alone a first-timer. Favreau, along with cinematographer Bill Pope (who shot The Matrix, Spider-Man 2, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World amongst many others) and a team of expert animators have made a great looking film that captures the varying terrain of the jungle, immersing the audience in this unfamiliar world.
The Jungle Book is a work of sheer collaborative will, anchored by a director with a clear vision who worked hard to see it through and it shows. This film is the best reason to date to justify Disney’s intent to bring their animation into the real world, and given the upcoming slate, it’s likely going to stay the best. With compelling characters, amazing animal animation and an immersive world and story, The Jungle Book hits every note well and never fails to entertain and reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place.