I once heard Paul Thomas Anderson say that the best visual effect in a film, is a good actor. That as much as presentation is important, nothing can help boost a movie’s quality and make it look really good, than when you put a good actor onscreen. If I could revise that a little bit as well, I’d say the same goes for a good character.
Over the past few years, aside from owning two of the most popular and successful film brands in the world, Disney has begun a new trend of live-action adaptations of some of their most classic animated films and fairy tales. We’ve seen it produce varying results throughout the years as well, whether it be Maleficent, Alice in Wonderland, or 2015’s delightful, Cinderella. With Jon Favreau’s live-action interpretation of The Jungle Book though, it was clear that the studio, and the filmmaker himself, were striving to create something different and more special than some of their recent “reimaginings”.
Based on the novels by Rudyard Kipling, anyone who’s heard of The Jungle Book is likely already familiar with the film’s story, of a boy named Mowgli who was raised by wolves in the jungle, but was forced to return to the world of men, when a tiger named Shere Khan (played here by the always spectacular Idris Elba) began hunting him and anyone who protected him. The new iteration does not divert much from that basic path, as anyone who’s been paying attention is likely already aware, but Favreau doesn’t seem all that interested in reinventing the wheel of storytelling here, as much as he does with the film’s aesthetic.
Justifiably as well, a lot of noise has been made about the film’s revolutionary special effects over the past few months, since despite the jungle locale and the rip-roaring set pieces, the entirety of the film was shot on a soundstage in Downtown Los Angeles, with the only practical elements of the film being Mowgli himself, played by newcomer Neel Sethi, and the ground he was often walking on. Other than that, nothing around him was real, including the supporting creatures and animals he has interactions with, which are brought to life through voice over performances by some of the most talented and noteworthy stars in Hollywood today.
Going into the film though, I was a bit worried because of the danger that can appear when a filmmaker spends too much time working on a film’s visual aesthetic, that they end up forgetting to fill in the rest of the film, including its story and characters. You don’t have to look much farther than James Cameron’s Avatar to see that at work, which Favreau has luckily, only taken the effective elements from because The Jungle Book is just as enthralling thematically as it is visually, and much like the original animated film, while the look of it is gorgeous, its the characters that really make The Jungle Book shine.
Favreau once again demonstrates his acute eye for casting here as well, in the discovery of newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli, who from a performance standpoint alone shines and manages to carry a majority of the film’s dramatic and emotional weight on his shoulders, but should be applauded even more so when you remember that for a majority of the film, he was tasked with using his imagination to fill in the large blank spaces around him. As the central anchor of reality in the film, he could have stood out like a sore thumb. Instead, he soaks up the film’s heavy spotlight in stride.
The director fills in the roles and characters around Sethi just as brilliantly though, with small appearances from both Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, the snake enchantress who hypnotizes her victims into their demise, and Christopher Walken as King Louie, a Gigantopithecus with legions of monkeys at his disposal, who spends his time lounging on the throne of an ancient temple in the jungle and tries to recruit Mowgli to his ranks if he can only give him the red flower (fire). Both characters act as satisfying homages to the original film, while also moving the story ahead skillfully, with Walken’s Louie in particular, not only having a song and dance number that should make Disney die hards out there happy, but also feels like a Disney version of a gangster from a Martin Scorsese film.
Ben Kingsley as Bagheera provides a calming and comforting tone to the film, not only acting as the film’s narrator, but also as Mowgli’s protector and escort for a majority of his journey across the jungle. That is, until Mowgli runs into Bill Murray’s Baloo, who much like the animated film, manages to steal the entire film from itself. Now, that’s not to take away from any of the other characters or Sethi’s performance, but is instead an example of the magic that can appear onscreen when you pair an actor and a character perfectly together. He’s lovable, fun, and cuddly in the best possible way.
Other standouts include Lupita Nyong’o’s Raksha, the wolf mother that raises Mowgli and has a surprisingly important role throughout the rest of the film, Giancarlo Esposito as Akela, the head of Mowgli’s wolf pack, and Idris Elba’s villainous Shere Khan, who might just be the best villain that Disney has put onscreen in years (not counting their other, branded franchises). Elba’s gruffness and smooth charm works perfectly with the tiger’s motivations and actions throughout the film, and he adds a sinister urgency to the entirety of the film, like a small candle burning underneath each scene.
The star of the film is Favreau though, who directs it with enough warmth and sophistication to make it something epic and grand, without ever losing the heart or fun of the story itself underneath all of the film’s visually-striking spectacle. Not a single frame of the visual effects and digital world looks subpar or fake, and it’s without a doubt, the most spectacular digital world we’ve seen on the silver screen yet. Considering the previous efforts from directors like James Cameron, Sam Raimi, and Tim Burton as well, that’s saying something. After Chef last year, which is still my favorite Favreau film, the director has come back once again with an effort that perfectly marries his blockbuster expertise, with his independent roots.
Now, none of this is to say that the film is perfect, but there’s really nothing inherently wrong with it either. It follows a predictable path, like all Disney fairy tales and classics do, but its unabashed love of its influencers and studio predecessors are a great deal of where the film’s charm comes from. Surprisingly enough, while watching it, I was reminded more of the 1990s animated films from Disney like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King than even the 1967 animated film.
Through and through, The Jungle Book is a visual and thematical treat, filled to the brim with the kind of passion so recognizable in some of the more iconic Disney classics. You may know where the story is going from within the first few minutes, but Favreau’s execution is done so skillfully and is charming enough, that it’s the kind of adventure you’ll enjoy more for the characters and in-between moments, than the eventual and predictable plot beats. In a year where we’ve seen a raunchy, and violent anti-hero comic book film and a doomsday-obsessed, bleak gladiator fight, The Jungle Book offers a nice change of pace from the rest of this year’s summer blockbusters, and an epic, Disney adventure for the whole family to enjoy. Sometimes, it feels really nice to say that too.
The Jungle Book hits theatres on April 15th.
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