Forget about your worries and your strife…
We mortals rally against change; whether it be technological advances or an evolution of the stories we loved as children, no one likes the tides sweeping away the past. And with that old adage about no new tales left in the world, coupled with a generation obsessed with nostalgia, the tire tread on our car of imagination is getting a little wobbly. Following the recent failure of remakes and reboots like Maleficent, Terminator: Genisys, and anything Michael Bay touches, the mere whisper in the air of a live-action version of my beloved Rudyard Kipling-penned Disney classic The Jungle Book had the curmudgeon in me fuming.
However, as trusting as I always attempt to be of the House the Mouse Built — not to mention director Jon Favreau — I sat down with my bucket of buttered kernels to give this version a shot. And what do you know? Turns out we have a bonafide masterpiece on our hands.
The story is iconic: Mowgli (Neel Sethi), an orphan left in the jungle, is saved by panther Bagheera (voiced by a stern Ben Kingsley) and raised by the wolf pack and mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). Headstrong and eager to stay a child in this land of wonder, Mowgli does his best to stay a cub, but often strikes fear and wonderment into his animal peers when he uses his intellect (and opposable thumbs) to cut corners. When a drought in the jungle causes a truce among all the animals at the local water source, Mowgli crosses paths with Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a Bengal tiger who rules with fear and wants Mowgli’s head. Man is both forbidden and particularly hated by Khan.
Fearing the end to the peace, Bagheera sets out to return the young man cub to his people, to the land of Man. Along the way, the two are separated, and Mowgli comes in contact with both frightening and beloved figures like slothy-bear Baloo (the incomparable Bill Murray), King of the Apes Louie (Christopher Walken), and mysterious Kaa (Scarlett Johansson). This classic coming-of-age tale has been told anew by every generation, but in the hands of Jon Favreau, it gets wrapped in fantasy and the kind of visual magic so effective, yet rarely matched, since the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Favreau undeniably loves and respects those prior interpretations of The Jungle Book, marrying elements of the original Kipling with the songs and style of the Disney animated classic. Even better, his modern, live-action version utilizes current technologies to bring Mowgli’s world to life in a way impossible until now. And yet, the film’s best effect is Neel Sethi’s wide-eyed innocence; his Mowgli is plausibly naive, unstoppably carefree, and an immortal vision of youth.
Favreau’s eye for filling a frame with astonishing depth and near-tangible color displays is remarkable, and the all-digital environments engross from the opening moments. Much more focused and with even more heart than his prior exploration of childlike wonder, Elf, The Jungle Book is the kind of film that makes a career. With Justin Marks’ sophisticated screenplay — both reverent of the material and incredibly smart about what to update for modern viewers — Favreau has created something that, somehow, feels new. Not that the story has been substantially changed, but the discoveries come in the film’s surprising scope, and and how the original themes have been re-interpreted and expertly layered.
Take the idea of Man being the greatest threat to jungle life. Mowgli is our hero, and yet, we can understand Shere Khan’s fear of him. When Mowgli uses tools to perform “tricks” that the animals can’t imitate, he changes the social order, and threatens a way of life so long kept in harmony. Even when Mowgli’s intentions are good, the result is often destruction of the things he is trying to protect. The idea of warring inside oneself of where he might belong, versus who he truly is, is a struggle often played out on the screen, but rarely resolved with the kind of grace and — let’s say it — humanity it is here. Instead of the animated film’s more fairy-tale conclusion, Favreau challenges our expectations, and leaves us with an ambiguity bordering on uneasiness. I can’t help but wonder how the children in the audience might respond to it when they revisit the film as adults. It’s really quite brave.
Regarding the CGI, it’s breathtaking, and the best depiction of “talking animals” on screen to date. (Your move, Andy Serkis.) They are living, breathing characters with expressions and emotional resonance. The texture of the animals’ fur, the color combinations on Kaa’s scales, the anger and sociopathy on Khan’s face are real, physical elements. You never once feel like you are viewing a children’s film. An exciting score by composer John Debney lilts softly and builds dramatically when justified; “I Wan’na Be Like You” and “Bare Necessities” are much-loved songs brought back for nostalgia sake, and may be a divisive point for current viewers, but I enjoyed hearing them and tapping my foot along.
The young Sethi controls every scene. His inexperience never shows. He simply is Mowgli: a child growing emotionally and physically in front of our eyes. Sethi’s ability to connect with the created CGI characters adds dimension to the emotional moments and a beating heart to the story. This could have frankly been a nightmare in less capable hands, but the kid has a endearing screen presence and succeeds whether asked to play headache, fear, or levity.
I would, however, offer this final warning to those parents wishing to bring their little ones along: the film is, at times, brutal and unforgiving in its realism. There is loss, and death, and blood, and fear, and dirt, and muck, and all the things one fighting for their life must face. I personally would be cautious with anyone under the age of eight. But if you still believe in cinematic magic, and in the hope that your childhood can be captured and relived on the screen once again, go and see The Jungle Book immediately. You’ll thank me.