The Jungle Book
Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is the latest of Disney’s live action updates to their classic animated movies after Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella.
The story is that a young boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is forced to leave the family of wolves that raised him when his life is threatened by a merciless tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba). Along the way he encounters different challenges from animals he meets. In general, the story hasn’t changed an awful lot from the 1967 animated version so fans of that will be right at home here and those experiencing the story for the first time should find it easy to follow.
It all flows pretty well with very few lulls in the action. The film can essentially be broken down into the experiences Mowgli has with the animals he meets and how that broadens his world view so in many ways it isn’t a flowing narrative as such as it comes across as a collection of scenes featuring different celebrity voiced CGI animals. Structurally this is very similar to the animated film and I didn’t have an issue with it because it allowed the film to explore different tones and build the world of the jungle in a really dynamic way.
The different tones work really well such as the eerie horror style used in Mowgli’s encounter with the seductive snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and the comedy inspired scenes with Baloo (Bill Murray). These tonal shifts keep things from getting stale and nothing outstays its welcome to any noticeable degree. Some scenes go on a little too long but I never felt like the film was being dragged down by anything.
There’s a lot to like in this film. Notable highlights for me were the afore mentioned Kaa encounter that featured a perfectly unsettling vocal performance from Scarlett Johansson combined with great cinematography to establish a claustrophobic and foreboding atmosphere.
Any scene featuring Baloo was memorable with Bill Murray’s natural comedy chops proving to be the ideal match for bringing this character to life. Baloo features heavily in the film so it was important to get his friendship with Mowgli right and the film completely delivers on that. There’s a lot of depth to Baloo with Bill Murray’s line delivery expressing genuine concern and affection for Mowgli plus he was really funny. Bill Murray can always make me laugh and definitely manages that here.
As antagonists go, Shere Khan works really well. The way he stalks around always appearing to be on the brink of attacking makes any scene featuring him incredibly tense. He is written to be casually sadistic and sinister which really dials up his threat level. Idris Elba’s vocal performance further adds to his presence. He ranges from subtly creepy to full on angry and threatening. His varied line delivery makes him an unpredictable villain and constantly believable as the threat that he represents.
The voice acting was generally excellent. I have already mentioned the superb performances from Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray and Idris Elba but Christopher Walken’s wacky turn as King Louie also bears mentioning. It’s a pretty surreal sequence that transitions from goofy musical to horror reminiscent of a slasher film. Christopher Walken effortlessly pulls of the unhinged qualities of the character making it obvious that Mowgli isn’t safe with him.
Ben Kingsley’s contribution as Bagheera the Panther is also noteworthy. He voices the character with a nobility that suggests he commands a lot of respect from those he meets. It’s easy to believe that he and Mowgli have a history that dates back a few years and his interactions with others in the cast feel natural enough.
Neel Sethi does a really good job as Mowgli. He’s confident and inquisitive while coming across as naive about the way things work. Mowgli’s arc involves him finding his place in the world with so many animals telling him that he doesn’t belong in the jungle while he doesn’t identify as being human. His desire for identity drives him throughout the film and gives him a definitive path to follow as he explores the jungle. At times Sethi’s performance is a little iffy and it is sometimes obvious that he doesn’t quite know where to aim his dialogue with all the CGI on display but it can’t really be held against him too much considering it’s his first film. For a first attempt this is a very good effort and he is believable for the most part.
Visually this film is amazing. I’ve read that it was filmed in Los Angeles but if I didn’t know that then I wouldn’t have been able to tell. It looks like it was filmed on location and the CGI for the animals looks incredible. This is one of the most impressive examples of CGI to date and it definitely should be recognised for the technical excellence on display.
The film features a couple of musical numbers but they feel a little out of place considering the idea of people randomly bursting into song isn’t something that is fully committed to. You couldn’t have this film without “The Bear Necessities” appearing in some form but in context it seems to come from nowhere as does rendition of “I wanna be like you”. Both are really good -despite some questionable singing from Sethi- but I couldn’t get past how odd it felt to have them suddenly appear. Maybe if more songs had been featured this wouldn’t have been an issue. I can’t help but think the Kaa scene would have been enhanced with “Trust in Me” playing over it. There is a great version of it that plays over the end credits performed by Scarlett Johannson though so stick around for that.
Some other things about the film don’t quite work such as the final battle with Shere Khan having some conveniences that manage to sidestep the wider implications of some of the elements on display. This isn’t a deal breaker by any stretch and it comes too late to really deal with the wider consequences but the cop out is noticeable.
A fun film that features some of the best CGI work to date. The voice acting is equally impressive and the story moves along well. Some things don’t quite work but not enough to bring the experience down too much.
- the excellent voice acting
- landmark CGI work
- an impressive mix of tones
- the musical numbers feeling slightly out of place