A live-action Jungle Book? Never going to work, I thought. Something just did not sit right with the idea of recreating luscious jungle landscapes and the anthropomorphic characters that we know and love from the 1976 animated Walt Disney classic and Rudyard Kipling's eponymous collective works. I recall little about either of those, as The Jungle Book never really grabbed my attention in either of its formats. Imagine then, to my pleasant surprise, when the rejuvenated release set out the gate with incredible reviews and reception, as well as a startling box office opening weekend (which it has only maintained from then onwards). I had to check the film out for myself and see the bare necessities of the picture for myself...
The live-action/CGI tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), an orphaned human boy who grows up in the animals as his guardians in their kingdom. When his safety is threatened by Shere Khan (Idris Elba), Mowgli must embark on a journey of self-discovery to discover his place in the world, whilst meeting an abundance of animals on his adventure that help protect him from the danger that search for him so desperately. Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johnasson and Christopher Walken help personify the animals in this film with their voice talents, to varying levels of success (but more on that later).
Visually, this is one of the most compelling and enthralling films I have ever had the pleasure to see on the big screen. With the added 3D element, the breaktaking jungle landscape comes alive in each and every single frame, with such lusciousness and marvel that it is difficult to comprehend that it is filmed entirely on a greenscreen soundstage in LA, not in the Indian jungles it is set. The definition of a cinematic experience, this is a film that must be seen to be appreciated, and on the largest screen possible. 3D brings you in closer to the action but I imagine that it is just as striking and extraordinary without this element. Director Jon Favreau does an astounding job throughout the film, paying such incredible attention to detail; it is these little things and characteristics that truly elevate The Jungle Book into something of an unbelievable treat, a vision to the eyes and a spectacle to behold.
Neel Sethi, pretty much the only physically-seen aspect of the film, is a towering and remarkable revelation, especially when considering that everything he is reacting to is green screen. Not only does he actually resemble the character of Mowgli, but he also brings the heart, humour and warmth needed for the character to stand out, truly embodying the mancub. He more than capably stands up against the voice talents of the A-List cast and is an absolute star in the making; child actors rarely come this convincing, last seen by Jacob Tremblay in Room. Quite honestly, he is an early contender for next year's Best Actor Oscar. The rest of the cast is pretty convincing: Scarlett Johansson somewhat diffused my fear of snakes as Kaa, personifying the traits of the character and very convincing as the hypnotiser, while Bill Murray is warm and affable as Baloo, Ben Kingsley powerful and almost benevolent as Bagheera and Lupitya Nyong'o nurturing and compelling Raksha. Idris Elba never fully convinces as antagonist Shere Khan until the final scene but manages to win audiences around in just enough time to be called a success. These anthropomorphic characters are very much brought to life through these voices and generally very plausible.
In some ways, the film never quite realises its full potential as an allegory for society and hierarchy. A lot of parallels exist within the film that could be pushed further as an underlying message, but this is never fully realised and reached. That said, this is a family film after all which could be complicated by the addition of these themes and ideas, beyond what general audiences are looking for in a Disney blockbuster. Furthermore, we run into a few structural issues in the middle as we prepare for the final climax but nothing that cannot be looked past in the sheer thrill of the proceedings.
This compelling retelling of the Disney classic arguably exceeds the original in more ways that one; a visual treat grounded by realism (when considered talking animals, I guess) with an impressive cast and cinematic experience that deserves all the success and goodwill it is getting from critics and audiences. Inclusion of the original's song is an excellent little touch and exactly the sort of attention to detail previously discussed. This four-quadrant blockbuster should continue Walt Disney's impressive track record this year right throughout the summer and could very easily attack that $1 billion barrier come the end of its run. Deservingly so, The Jungle Book continues the successful venture of Disney by reviving some of their most classic films and tales into live-action releases and if they are half the success The Jungle Book is, we are in for some real treats with the likes of Dumbo, The Lion King and others. Congratulations to everyone on this film for truly defying and crushing expectations.
Summary: The Jungle Book is a rare achievement in that it develops on the original's 'bare neccessities' whilst breathing new life through the astounding visual world created by director Jon Favreau and further supported by impressive performances.
Highlight: The visual world created is second to none and should really be scooping up some awards next Oscar season.