Almost 50 years after Disney brought us the animated musical adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s 19th century stories The Jungle Book is back, this time as live-action-CGI fantasy adventure. Darker than its largely comedic [and musical] predecessor, this version is a journey of discovery for our young hero, who has not only a formidable enemy to overcome, but also issues of identity and family to grapple with. The Jungle Book is reviewed after the jump.
Man-cub Mowgli (played by newcomer Neel Sethi, the only character or aspect of the film that is not created by CGI) is forced to flee his corner of the jungle when a fierce tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba) threatens the safety of Mowgli and his adopted family, a pack of wolves. Mowgli’s friend and protector, a panther called Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), sets out with Mowgli on a mission to return him safely to the tribe of men, the only place he believes Mowgli will be safe. However, the only home Mowgli has ever known is the jungle, and he’s not convinced that the tribe of men is where he should be – the jungle still has many secrets and adventures for Mowgli to discover, and his heart belongs to the wolves, not the men.
The Jungle Book has to be one of the greatest achievements of CGI in film. The fact that only Mowgil is real is rather astounding – every leaf, every drop of water, every animal – they were all created by an incredibly skilled team of artists/CGI wizards. The jungle itself is lush and teeming with life. Much like Disney’s Zootopia (also released this year), there is a real depth to the world presented in the film. The animals themselves are wonderful – walking the line between photorealism and fantasy in a way that allows you to lose yourself in the adventure.
While visually arresting, the animals could do with talking less. Unfortunately the filmmakers have gone for big names (and distinctive voices) for many of the animal characters, and the result is rather distracting. Will kids notice? Unlikely, but this shouldn’t mean it isn’t important though. Every time Baloo spoke I heard Bill Murray, the snake was nothing but Scarlet Johansson, and King Louie was 100% Christopher Walken. Their voices yanked me out of the magical world on-screen and the spell of the jungle was broken. Exceptions to this are the versatile tones of Sir Ben Kingsley (Bagheera) and the soft, steady voice of Lupita Nyong’o (Raksha) – both actors are excellent here.
Neel Sethi’s athleticism and physicality are so perfect for Mowgli – he bounds around the jungle (or in front of the green screen) with energy and ease. He is a delight to watch. He is less successful on the delivery of lines however – it does feel like he’s just reciting them (rather than it being something the character is saying and meaning) for much of the film. I can’t imagine that it was easy to act when none of your co-stars are actually acting in front of you – considering this, he did a reasonable job.
Losing yourself in the visuals of The Jungle Book is easy, losing yourself in the story is less so. It’s very episodic in nature, with a set number of obstacles in the way of Mowgli and the inevitable show down with Shere Khan. There are perhaps one too many obstacles, as the story does feel a little bogged down around the middle. Personally, I could have done without Walken’s king of the jungle interlude. In fact, both of the songs (there are only two in the film), felt like a bit of an afterthought. It’s almost as if they realised the film was a bit too dark for younger audiences, and shoved them in there to lighten the mood.
The film does tackle some interesting topics, namely identity and family – important things for people of all ages to think about. Families come in many shapes and sizes, and I think the film did a good job in allowing Mowgli to investigate what family means to him.
The Jungle Book is an admirable film, in large part thanks to the beautifully realised jungle, a place rich with life and adventure. If the reviews and box office are anything to go by, Disney and Jon Favreau have a legitimate hit on their hands. I suspect we’ll get a chance to explore the jungle again in the not too distant future.
By Sam McCosh
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer(s): Justin Marks (screenplay), Rudyard Kipling (book)
Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken
Runtime: 105 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: April 14, 2016