Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Neel Sethi
Of the million and one adaptations of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 novel, the only one that has stood the test of time thus far has been Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book, of 1967. However, the release of Jon Favreau’s live-action adaptation of the film may force the classic to share the spotlight. The Iron Man director’s take on the 1967 movie is simply glorious, full of beautiful shots and well-done CGI, content matter that stays faithful to the original without seeming repetitive, and a fantastic cast.
In true Disney fashion, the film begins with a narrator reading to us about the “peace rock”, where once a day, all the animals gather to drink without quarrel, as dictated by the “water truce”. It’s here that we meet Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a “man cub” who’s been raised to be a wolf, but struggles with doing things the wolf way. When the feared tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) discovers the presence of a man cub in the jungle, he promises to come after the boy following the close of the water truce. Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), the panther who found Mowgli when he was a baby, realizes the danger that he’s in and sets out to escort Mowgli to the nearby man-village.
It would be impossible to talk about this film without mentioning the amazing visuals it contains. In preparation for creating the virtual reality setting, Favreau had several jungles around India photographed to serve as reference. This detail truly pays off in the film, with some of the shots being in the mix for the sole purpose of proving this, including creatures that audience members haven’t even known about. Some of the animals look almost a bit surreal, but it’s in a way that causes a sense of awe and doesn’t look fake. The beauty of animation is that it can be used to create fantastical realm, as it does in 1967’s The Jungle Book – but Favreau’s version accomplishes this using CGI, which makes the film a true visual accomplishment.
Praise for The Jungle Book must go even further than acknowledging its impressive vistas – the film pays such homage to its predecessor and even improves upon it. The original story of a man-cub seeking refuge from a feared tiger is preserved, but with more developed themes. Mowgli is seen struggling against his human nature to use tools in favor of the wolf way, which is a rather unique spin on the classic theme of finding one’s identity. The movie also has some political undertones, with the various truces, and King Louie’s attempt to form an alliance with Mowgli in exchange for the ultimate human making. The frequently told story is no longer just for kids; Favreau allows adults to enjoy The Jungle Book as well.
A final perfecting factor in the film is the cast. Neel Sethi’s only other experience in film comes from a role he had in a short film back in 2013. This detail makes Sethi’s performance increasingly more impressive than it would be if he’d had a more sizable repertoire. Sethi’s Mowgli has an attitude that’s uncannily similar to the 1967 man cub – full of youth with a slight dish of overconfidence. Sethi makes the boy’s strong will shine. The ensemble cast is all amazing as well, with Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa and Bill Murray’s Baloo deserving special recognition.
After so many attempts to capture the beauty of the original Jungle Book have quickly circled the drain, it’s frankly refreshing to see Favreau’s take. A lot of his creative decisions are risky (who knew that casting Kaa as a female would cause such a stink?), but ultimately they are worthwhile. The real key to the film’s success is in the fact that while many elements of the 1967 tale are preserved, there’s also innovation and originality. The summation? The Jungle Book is a remake that no one has to regret!