The Jungle Book
(USA) Adventure. Directed by Jon Favreau. Starring
Neel Sethi and the voices of Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson. Category IIA. 106 Minutes. Opened May 26. For those who grew up watching the 1967 cartoon version of “The Jungle Book” based on Rudyard Kipling’s stories, it seems no remake could ever match up to the magic and charm of its predecessor. Plus, how does one go about making “real” talking jungle animals look convincing on screen anyway?
A tall order for Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) and team, but somehow they make it work: Armed with some kind of visual effects sorcery, in “The Jungle Book” they’re able to create almost National Geographic-worthy scenes of the animal kingdom. But this story isn’t brought to life simply through well-placed pixels: instead Favreau lets the humanity and emotion of this classic story shine through.
The storyline is very much loyal to the cartoon, though filming in a live action style colors the film with a much darker, but richer ambience. The protagonist, 11-year-old “mancub” Mowgli (played by Neel Sethi) is rescued as a baby in the Indian jungle by the stern but protective black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), and is raised by wolves. Struggling to fit in with his pack, he catches the attention of Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a Bengal tiger who vows to have Mowgli destroyed. With the help of Bagheera, he’s urged to rejoin his own kind at the village where he will be safe—and he meets a host of friends and foes along the way who teach him lessons about being himself, not just another species.
A newcomer to film, 12-year-old Neel Sethi does an exceptional job as Mowgli, especially when you realize that he acted every scene alone against a green backdrop— he’s the only physical actor in the entire film, whereas a roster of A-listers show off their spot-on voice acting. The luxurious voices of Kingsley and Elba, the bumbling humor of Baloo
(Bill Murray) and the seductive hisses of ScarJo as Kaa the boa constrictor are all complemented by their beautifully animated characters and environments.
By illustrating the animals so close to reality, danger and violence are suddenly all the more real. At times, this is effective: Shere Khan’s cold cruelty is terrifying. At other times, the sinister tone can cause a disjoint: A case in point is King Louie (Christopher Walken)’s scene, in which the giant orangutan king creeps out of the shadowed ruins... to croon the groovy big band number “I Wan’na Be Like You,” which adds uncanny tension as Louie smashes his temple ruin abode. It turns out, Disney song numbers and live action just don’t mesh very well. Thankfully, Baloo and Mowgli’s song “Bare Necessities” fares a little better.
What gave the original cartoon its everlasting charm were lessons it taught about growing up, about following the rules and breaking them sometimes, about the dangers of adult ennui, about the importance of protecting nature, and so much more. Coupled with the mystery and adventure of the jungle, “The Jungle Book” has an undeniable, timeless appeal. With new, detailed graphics and a more grown-up, darker dimension, this remake won’t replace the original cartoon in our hearts: But it comes very, very close. Evelyn Lok