UK Release Date: 15th April 2016
Runtime: 106 minutes
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: Justin Marks
Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito
Synopsis: A child, brought up by wolves, is forced to journey through the depths of a treacherous jungle when a tiger with a serious beef against humans decides to tear him limb from limb.
Disney has done really well so far out of its live action adaptations of animated classic. Maleficent gave the Sleeping Beauty mythology a shake-up on the way to more than $750m at the global box office, so it’s no surprise that Disney is going to the well again. This time, the truly iconic 1967 animated take on The Jungle Book gets a live action makeover courtesy of Iron Man director Jon Favreau and two years before Andy Serkis has a go with Jungle Book: Origins. Expectations were not high but, against all odds, it’s arguably the most impressive achievement in visual effects since Avatar.
Orphaned child Mowgli (Neel Sethi) has been brought up in the care of wolf mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and lives in the jungle under the watchful eye of panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). On a day of peace, the villainous tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) threatens the boy, saying that humans have no place in the jungle. Mowgli is forced to flee his adopted family and crosses paths with amiable bear Baloo (Bill Murray), seductive serpent Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and sinister ape leader King Louie (Christopher Walken).
The Jungle Book is a simply staggering feat of visual innovation. To call it live action is slightly misleading because, with the exception of youngster Neel Sethi as Mowgli, everything that is visible in the movie was created inside a computer. This is a world of photo-real animals, existing in a photo-real jungle and believably interacting with a true live action element. Films like Avatar and Life of Pi accentuated their impressive visuals with stylistic flourishes and show-stopping moments to showcase their work. The Jungle Book does nothing of the sort and simply allows the stark realism of its world tell the story. The CGI is all the more awe-inspiring because, after a while, it’s possible to forget that it’s anything other than completely and utterly real.
They want to send you to the man-village? I say, you can be a man right here.
Sethi completely inhabits the role of Mowgli, helped by the fact he looks remarkably like the version of the character in the original Disney animation. His performance isn’t always flawless from an acting perspective, but it is impressive that such an inexperienced actor can interact so convincingly with a series of green backdrops and tennis balls on the ends of sticks. He is helped by uniformly excellent performances from the adult cast, with some left-field casting choices such as Idris Elba and Christopher Walken giving the film a real creative edge.
Elba, in particular, is a revelation as Shere Khan. He gives the jungle’s most feared predator a guttural, low growl of a voice that is terrifyingly convincing. His control of the tension is remarkable, especially in a truly shocking moment of animal violence that is more visceral than any other scene of brutality on the big screen this year. The same sinister tone carries on throughout The Jungle Book, with both Scarlett Johansson’s genuinely seductive, honey-tongued python and Christopher Walken’s mob boss Gigantopithecus. The latter, especially, brings a dark edge to his rendition of ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ and genuinely reinvents the character in an intriguing way.
That’s not to say that The Jungle Book is an overly dark take on the Rudyard Kipling material. It has a big, warm heart in the shape of Bill Murray as Baloo. Murray’s lovable bear is the archetypal slacker and delivers many of the film’s biggest laughs, both through his lack of enthusiasm for anything involving effort and his playful manipulation of Mowgli to get his way. It’s almost impossible to get through the 24 hours after the credits roll on The Jungle Book without incessantly humming ‘Bear Necessities’, which provides the delightfully breezy midpoint of the story.
A man-cub becomes a man, and man is forbidden.
The Jungle Book delivers interesting characters, performed very well and wrapped up in a remarkable visual achievement. With that in mind, it’s a shame that the storytelling is so thoroughly conventional. There’s a lot of fun to be had here, but there aren’t all that many surprises in the narrative. Few would have predicted going into the film that this would be such an entertaining family adventure, but it has certainly left Serkis and co with a really hard act to follow.
Pop or Poop?
Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is a genuine marvel of cinema’s capability to produce a convincing world within the confines of a computer system. The landscape and animation is simply remarkable and hums with life, free of the sterility that too often renders CGI worlds emotionally empty and soulless.
It doesn’t break narrative ground, but it does feature excellent voice performances from great actors and it has a breezy, fast-paced approach to its storytelling. A little more than the Bear Necessities… trust in me.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.