I want to be upfront about something: when Disney released the first few trailers for their CGI-live-action hybrid of the classic animated film, “The Jungle Book,” I wasn’t even remotely excited. It felt like a cash-grab that would be all spectacle with no substance because Disney is going to great lengths to adapt their immense library of animated classics to live-action features. This is a high-risk, high-reward situation as Disney can either succeed and make some truly wonderful films, or fail and be seen as lazy and gluttonous, given their unwillingness to create entirely original films. Luckily—in this case—the result is the former. With stunning animation, beautifully rendered animals and a nostalgia-inducing score, Jon Favreau’s adaptation of “The Jungle Book” bears all the necessities and makes itself one of the most magical movies of the year.
It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly fifty years since audiences first witnessed Disney’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s, “The Jungle Book.” Though Favreau’s adaptation diverges from the original’s plot, it still captures the original’s magic and heart that fans have loved for the last half-century, though this new version gets a boost from modern technology, action and adventure.
In the film, Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a “man-cub” raised by wolves, finds himself hunted by the vengeful tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who believes that Mowgli could threaten the sanctity of the forest once he becomes a man.
As Bagheera (Ben Kingsley)—the panther who mentors Mowgli—guides the young boy back to civilization, audiences are introduced to a wondrous, fully detailed world inhabited by animals both fierce and kind. From mighty elephants and ferocious tiger, down to the flying squirrels, this is the most impressive CGI I’ve seen since “Life of Pi.” Each animal in the forest is created with loving, meticulous care. From the way they speak, to their movement, all the way down to their individual strands of hair and fur, it feels like each animal is given its own soul; there were times when I forgot the film was animated.
Sethi is marvelous as Mowgli. As an outsider, he must overcome towering obstacles to fit in with the wildlife. His human “tricks” are frowned upon as his ingenuity makes him appear even more different than he already is. Yet he is pure of heart and wholly innocent. He wants nothing more than to help out and fit in. Sethi captures Mowgli’s purity with scrappiness and wit. The film is an excellent start for the young actor.
Favreau’s adaptation is decidedly less musical than the animated version—but that doesn’t mean there’s a complete lack of tunes. Featuring a stirring score from John Debney that so lovingly honors the original film—and new renditions of “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You”—each melody sent nostalgic chills down my spine. This is as much of a movie for adults as it is for kids, if not even more so.
While Sethi is the only human you see throughout the film, a stellar voice cast adds even more life to the animals. With the likes of the hilarious Bill Murray as Baloo, a scintillating Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the snake and Christopher Walken as King Louie, my only complaint is that there aren’t more voice actresses. Johansson appears only briefly, and Mowgli’s wolf mother, Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) is similarly underutilized. Favreau actually switched Kaa to be a female character to make it more balanced, but a little more effort for diversity would have been appreciated.
I want to be upfront about something: “The Jungle Book” is one of my favorite movies of 2016. It’s not very often that I am so enraptured by a film that I simply want to sit back down and watch it again, but “The Jungle Book” did just that. In a film that is so full of charm and heart, Disney and Favreau do something more than just update a beloved classic: they remind audiences that movies are as magical as they’ve ever been.
Scott may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Scott Johnson is a senior Film Studies and Journalism double major. You can follow him on Twitter @scott7893 and find more of his reviews at RagingFilm.com