THE JUNGLE BOOK (Movie Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG

for some sequences of scary action and peril
Released: April 15, 2016
Runtime: 105 minutes
Director: Jon Fav

Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, 
Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Garry Shandling

(To see how the Academy Award winning Visual Effects were produced, click here for a behind the scenes video.)

The live-action remake of Disney’s The Jungle Book defies all logic, in ways that hail the dramatic leaps taken in cinematic wizardry – not just in recent years, but with this film specifically. Director Jon Favreau and his team of artists have set a new bar for how real a world can appear when most of that world is actually fake. On that achievement alone, this movie is a landmark.

Better still, the story and characters aren’t forgotten afterthoughts that get lost in the wake of obsessive technological boundary pushing. The stunning, state-of-the-art visual tapestry is all in service of an adventure that has blood pumping through its veins, and some soul at its heart.

It can be frightening, too, pushing the limits of the PG rating at times. There’s nothing morally offensive to guard kids from, mind you, but from various jump scares to extreme intense peril and even one blindsiding kill, it might be too overwhelming for the faint-hearted child – particularly given how realistically it’s all rendered.

To get a full grasp of what’s been accomplished here, you have to start at the very end, with the very last credit of the entire movie: “Shot entirely on location in downtown Los Angeles.” That’s right. And in one small studio warehouse at that. Yet to look at the finished product – indeed, even to scrutinize it in detail – you’d assume the opposite to be true.

This is a lush, exotic locale, teeming with life. If anything, one would naturally assume it was shot in Africa and then enhanced later with a few visual effects. But no. From dense treetops to vast prairie lands to flowing rivers and cascading waterfalls, virtually none of it is real (save for the occasional props and set dressings that provide child actor Neel Sethi the most basic elements to interact with).

And it’s not just the visual quality of these creations – their movement, textures, and so on – that impress. It’s how these creations look, exist, and move through space and light (light and shadow especially), and how the camera moves with and around them. It’s all simply, truly mindboggling.

To achieve this level of photo-real believability, particularly in an entirely recognizable earthbound environment (as opposed to one conjured for sci-fi or fantasy), well, it’s unprecedented. Yes, it’s using the same Avatar technology, but this is leaps and bounds beyond Cameron’s initial breakthrough seven years ago (one that looks more and more animated with each passing year). The integration of actor, props, motion-capture characters and special effects is as seamless as anything ever committed to screen.

As a story, it follows the basic structure of the animated classic (i.e man cub Mowgli must flee the jungle before nasty tiger Shere Khan kills him), but then expands, shifts, and in some cases entirely reworks characters and plot beats. The choices of what’s kept and what’s changed are all smart ones, creating something that’s bigger, richer, and grander than what inspired it while still staying true to what worked in the source (although by the third act it’s become almost an entirely different story). Yes, this is a new take and experience, but the two films still work as great companions – starting with the first, then graduating to the next.

The best change has to be Mowgli himself, with the only consistent carry over being the familiar red diaper costume. In the animated original, he’s nothing more than a wide-eyed one note “Oh gosh golly gee!” macguffin that’s passed off between different animals, allowing each their own featured scenes and/or musical numbers. This Mowgli is an actual boy, with the thoughts and feelings and perspectives of a boy. He’s a boy that grows and matures over the course of a journey.

He’s also given a charismatic appeal by Neel Sethi. Yes, Sethi is yet another precocious child actor, but that spunk is sincere and delightful, not manufactured. Sethi is a really likeable screen presence that can also do the heavy-lifting a lead role requires. The kid’s a natural. The all-star voice ensemble is perfectly cast as well, with (no surprise) Bill Murray being a particular highlight as the comic relief bear Baloo. Ben Kingsley and Idris Elba are also authoritative standouts as, respectively, the protective panther Bagheera and villainous tiger Shere Khan.

Perhaps the greatest thrill for fans of filmmaker Favreau is to see him newly invigorated. After getting bogged down in the studio machinations of making big budget tentpoles by committee (Iron Man 2, Cowboys & Aliens), Favreau produced his own low budget passion project Chef to reconnect himself with what he loved about making movies in the first place.

It paid off, not only with that film itself, but also with his return here to a blockbuster-sized ambition and scope. He’s clearly inspired again, taking risks, and for a studio that’s actually letting him. Yes, in one sense, retooling a beloved property is a safe bet. But there’s nothing safe about how Favreau made it.

It’s not flawless, most notably in the climax that glosses over the consequences of a careless action. Various slights like that pop up on occasion (but not constantly), so the story and themes aren’t always as buttoned up as they could be. Ultimately, however, those are nitpicks, not crippling problems. And for Favreau, this could very well mark an incredibly exciting new phase of his career.

The original 1967 Jungle Book remains as charming as ever, and it always will. It’s the reliably softer, and safer, version of this story. But this new, more expansive iteration deepens every aspect of that beloved classic, and provides a truly thrilling, captivating experience for all ages (and worth the $2 to $3 upcharge for 3D, a technology I’m not normally enamored with) – all while redefining what’s possible in the movies.

3 thoughts on “THE JUNGLE BOOK (Movie Review)

  1. Couldn’t agree more about the new ‘jungle book’. Groundbreaking visuals, a breakout performance by an unknown Indian actor and emotionally charged story that is equal parts scary, funny and inspiring. However the singing has got to go. It seemed like a shoehorned homage to the classic 1967 cartoon.
    Filled with such passion for the animal kingdom that it ought to roar. Disney’s answer to ‘life of pi’, which I will argue is BETTER than ‘avatar’ to my grave.

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