Walt Disney Pictures has adapted several of its animated classics into live action features over the past few years, mostly to mixed results. It’s a tough game to play; animation allows for such fantastical adventures that don’t always translate well to film. However, when it’s done well, it can yield spectacular results. The company’s latest attempt, The Jungle Book, is that kind of success.
This is a movie fueled by vision effects, and it looks gorgeous. It’s a CGI wonderland, the filmmakers have made no secret of it, but that’s honestly easy to forget while watching the story unfurl. The jungle could easily pass for authentic to an unsuspecting eye. Heck, it may actually be more visually appealing than the real thing. With a rehashed story, Disney had to set this film apart somehow, and the VFX do the job. Its an utter marvel to behold, not just the effects, but the idea that there’s really a place on Earth that looks like that. A whole essay could be written about the beauty and elegance conveyed by the artists that did this work, but it really should be seen first hand.
Seeing it in 3D also completely enhances the experience, and that’s coming from someone who normally detests that option. It gives tremendous depth to the jungle. When Mowgli is running on tree limbs and doing other death defying stunts, the scenery is totally engulfing and leave you in awe. 3D normally plays as a gimmick, but it feels right in this case.
Jon Favreau continues to prove himself as a master of his craft. He composes shots in this picture that sets it apart from other CGI adventures of its kind and gives it a sense of realism. He simply knows how to engage an audience with his direction, and it shows here. The Jungle Book pulls you in and keeps you there for all 105 minutes. It’s a cinematic adventure, and its hard to imagine that it would have been as good with anyone but Favreau at the helm.
Now alongside Favreau’s direction, most of this film’s anticipation was built around the star-studded voice cast. Luckily, they did not disappoint; each performer clearly gave it their all and aided in making this adaption memorable. Bill Murray was charmingly funny as Balloo, Ben Kingsley exuded sophistication and sagacity as Bagheera, Idris Elba instilled terror as Shere Khan, and Lupita Nyong’o warmed hearts as Mowgli’s wolf-mother Raksha. Even Scarlett Johansson, whose Kaa the snake played a disappointingly minuscule role, stood out strongly. And its important to note that the actors didn’t just emulate the performances given in the 1967 animated version. They made each role their own, and in turn helped separate this work from its predecessor.
The most impressive performance though belongs to Neel Sethi as Mowgli. This was the kid’s first film performance, and that alone earns him props because he didn’t flat out suck. In fact, he was good. Add the fact that he was acting against characters that weren’t really there, and he was damn good. He blended into the story and became the Man Cub; he wasn’t just some kid actor that the pros had to act around.
The Jungle Book has heart in spades. Its a visual thrill ride, but at its core it’s a movie about family, togetherness, and standing united. To be honest, its heart can get a little too big and teeters on the edge of cheesy at times, but thats easily forgiven. It is a Disney movie after all; children (and adults) need stories that inspire them, and that gives them an ideal to strive towards. Plus, we’re living in a post Batman v Superman world now, and moviegoers deserve a sense of hope once in a while.
There is one other strange issue that I had with the film. Towards the end of the second act, Mowgli is stolen away to the monkey temple. Overall, this is hands down one of the best sequences in the flick. It’s scary, a little funny, and Christopher Walken absolutely crushes it as King Louie. He’s played up as a menacing mob boss figure, and it works to a brilliant degree. It’s different, and a major step up from Louis Prima’s kid-friendly interpretation. But the filmmakers still tried to slip in a nod to the animated original, and it doesn’t fit. It’s way out of left field, and it both muddles and slows down an otherwise strong scene. It was done earlier with a different character as well; that time worked ten times better, and it should have been the only attempt.
Ultimately, Disney did one of the hardest things a studio can do: they took a tale that everyone has heard since childhood and kept it fresh. The Jungle Book is a spectacle to behold, and a triumph in visual storytelling. It may not be a new story, but its enjoyable nonetheless, and a great time at the movies for all ages.
The Jungle Book opens everywhere this Friday, April 15th.