The latest Disney adaptation of the classic Rudyard Kipling tale, director Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” is a big-budget, live-action adventure based on the story of the same name. The now-familiar story revolves around a young “man cub” named Mowgli (played by Neel Sethi), who, after being threatened by the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba), must leave the wolves who raised him to go and find the man village and live there. Along the way, he meets a cast of wild characters including Baloo the bear (voiced by Bill Murray), Kaa the python (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and King Louie the gigantopithecus (voiced by Christopher Walken), all while trying to figure out how to keep his jungle home safe from the wrath of Shere Khan.
It is hard to talk about this film without mentioning the works it is based from. Of course, the main inspiration comes from the original Rudyard Kipling 19th century stories inspired by the author’s ventures into India. However, the feel and tone of the story ultimately reflect its biggest inspiration, the original 1967 animated Disney classic.
Personally, I did not grow up with the original film (even though, for some reason, I have vivid memories of its atrocious 2003 sequel, “The Jungle Book 2”), but I finally saw it much later in my high school years. While the film is not perfect (it contains some pacing flaws and the hand-drawn animation isn’t perfect), it is still an undeniable classic, having earned a reputation as one of the studio’s most fun, energetic and lively animated films, made all the better with an unforgettable soundtrack and some ridiculously lovable characters. Afterwards, Disney would also roll out various animated and live-action sequels and prequels, but there is almost no question that the nearly 50-year-old adaptation made by the company remains the most beloved and remembered by animation buffs and Disney fans everywhere.
So, could the newest live-action adaptation live up to the 1967 film, or is it destined to be lumped in with the less iconic follow ups? Well, while there are definitely some flaws with this film, it still proves to be a strong adaptation that can hold up on its own.
First and foremost, it would be an insult to not talk about this film’s visuals and effects. Dear lord. Not since James Cameron’s 2009 “Avatar” have visual effects been pushed to such groundbreaking levels of complexity and near perfection. Filmed entirely on a sound stage in Los Angeles, the attention to detail here is extraordinary, with each piece of the forest looking authentic and real. Never for a second do you believe that there’s a green screen or that a part of the environment is not there. This is further escalated by the attention to detail throughout, such as each object’s reaction to weight, light touching them, rain falling and so much more.
The characters, who, other than Mowgli (played by Neel Sethi, an Indian-American actor), are also all created using computer technology, look fantastic. Even though it is a tad more obvious that they are not real, given that fact that they talk, the detail given to them is nonetheless extraordinary and I promise there will be times during this film where you will swear that you’re looking at an actual animal.
If this adaptation will be remembered for anything, it will undeniably be for being one of the most technically perfect films ever made. The voice performances too are all handled brilliantly. Bill Murray is top notch as the fun loving bear, Baloo, Ben Kingsley does a wonderful job as the stern Bagheera, Christopher Walken makes King Louie rather intimidating, and Scarlett Johansson, even if in the film for a short while, makes Kaa a rather chilling villain. However, the breakout performance, and undeniably the best character in the film, is Idris Elba’s Shere Khan. Elba elevates this already iconic Disney villain, taking inspiration from the original George Sanders’ performance in the 1967 animated classic, playing the character as a cool and sophisticated villain, but adds a new level of power and unpredictability never seen before. Coupled with the astonishing visuals, Shere Khan absolutely steals the show whenever he is on screen.
The direction is also well handled. Favreau’s love for the original Disney film shines throughout, with nods thrown in everywhere — from the visuals, hints of dialogue and even subtle notes of the score. Speaking of which, the score by John Debney beautifully complements the visuals and contains several little homages to the original animated film’s music (listen closely to the Kaa sequence and the scene where King Louie chases Mowgli through the temple) while adding his own epic originality in other scenes.
Story-wise, the film balances the lighter tone of Disney’s original with some darker elements of the Kipling tale and knows, at least for the most part, where in the story to focus each tone and how to transition from one to the other, which was something I was afraid that the film would not be able to accomplish.
“The Jungle Book,” isn’t perfect. The film attempts to throw in musical numbers from the original and, while a nice homage, they do not fit well here. The transitions into some of the songs are just plain lazy and awkward, particularly the “I Wan’na Be Like You” number, sung by King Louie (which was sad for me, as that was my favorite song from the original). Sadly, the sequence with Kaa, while beautiful to look at and featuring a wonderful performance by Johansson, is short and has no real meaning to the story other than to blurt out exposition.
While the child actor playing Mowgli isn’t terrible, there are moments where his dialogue and body language are unconvincing, and his performance sometimes goes unnoticed because of the effects extravaganza around him.
Perhaps the film’s most surprising, yet possibly biggest problem is that it loves the original animated film a bit too much. The film relies on your nostalgia to fill in gaps within the story structure. While I wasn’t confused as to why there are singing apes or hypnotic snakes, for those who may not be familiar with the original film, it could become pretty jarring and confusing, especially since the film also tries to balance a more serious tone reminiscent of the original Kipling stories.
Despite a few glitches, Disney’s latest “Jungle Book” is an overall visual effects powerhouse, supported by strong acting, a beautiful score and some lovable and developed characters. If you love the original 1967 “Jungle Book,” you are sure to like this one and still come out with something new to appreciate. It’s a definite watch, at the very least, for the film’s breathtaking visuals.