As soon as one thinks about The Jungle Book, the classic 1967 animated film pops into your head. Sure, it’s a cross-generational Disney film that is almost a rite of passage for any child to watch. The animation was crude and the songs were catchy like most Disney films. For some reason, this film resonated with generations upon generations of moviegoers for its liveliness, and its ability to just bring a smile to your face. The film was so successful that it’s been re-released theatrically many times. Instead of releasing the film yet another time, Disney Pictures continues its current trend of live action remakes to their classic films. Writer Justin Marks and director Jon Favreau (of Iron Man fame) have been tasked with creating a more up to date remake of the classic Disney film. This time, instead of rudimentary 2D animation (which Disney has all but abandoned at this point), the classic tale gets a stylized CGI-enhanced 3D remake full of all the bells and whistles that would make Avatar blush. The film is almost 100% CGI, with the exception of the star of the film Mowgli (Neel Sethi), but we still get our talking animals, great musical numbers we know and love, and it’s a completely great film!
Those familiar with Rudyard Kipling’s famous stories know the tale of “man-cub” Mowgli, who was raised by wolves by Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) ever since he was found by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to the point that all he knows is a wolf’s life. The time comes where he has to leave the pack due to pressure by Shere Khan (Idris Elba) during the “dry season” of face the angry tiger’s wrath, and so begins his adventure to not only escape Shere Khan, but find the world of man and all the obstacles and characters that come across him.
The film has an all-star cast including not only Nyong’o, Esposito, Kingsley and Elba, but the late Garry Shandling, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Bill Murray, Sam Raimi, Russell Peters, Jon Favreau and his wife Madeleine Favreau. Each cast member is not simply doing “guest talking,” but brings great life and personality to each of their roles. Murray’s plays Baloo the bear as only he can. He easily is the funniest role of the film. When he and Mowgli sing “The Bare Necessities,” you can’t help but sing along with them. When the film is at a dark moment, he comes in and brings great comedy right when it’s needed. Kingsley shines as the panther Bagheera providing Mowgli guidance with an Obi-Wan like manner. Elba channels his inner Stringer Bell (with a much more British accent) as the fear-inducing tiger ad plays the villain with such ease. There is a moment in the film where you actually can understand with his drive to kill Mowgli due to the fear of Man and his destructive nature. Johansson is seductive and scary as Kaa the python. Walken basically plays himself as monkey King Louie, until he sings “I Wanna Be Like You” and steals the show. The true standout of the film is Neel Sethi who had to act with a bunch of “zeroes and ones” for the whole film. It’s difficult to act in a completely CGI environment, but Sethi shines completely throughout the film. Whether he was interacting sadly with Nyong’o’s Raksha, laughing it up with Murray’s Baloo, or his epic confrontation with Elba’s Shere Khan; he displays raw emotion that is quite believable. That’s a rarity among child actors, and he knocks it out the park.
The film is noticeably more “adult” than the 1967 film. Mowgli’s departure from his wolf pack is rather heart-breaking. Shere Khan is a scary force of nature that eludes fear from not only the other animals in the film but the audience as well. Be prepared for a few “jump scares” throughout the film that can shock at a moment’s notice. When Kaa hypnotizes Mowgli, the giant python can be very intimidating. The explanation of the “red flower” (fire) and the display of its destructive power are very strong as well. The finale of the film is quite violent and adrenaline-inducing. Although the film is rated PG, there are a few moments that might shock younger audiences.
The CGI of this film is awe-inspiring. It’s almost easy to forget that this isn’t real life. Once again, the only thing in the film that is real is actor Sethi. Everything he interacts with is completely CGI rendered, even the environment. There are some moments in the film that are completely awe-inspiring, especially the end confrontation and the buffalo stampede (that is very similar to The Lion King’s version). The film is a marvel technical achievement, and audiences should pony up the extra money to see it in Imax.
Now this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some problems in the film. The film tries to balance its dark nature with its moments of lightheartedness. Anytime Shere Kahn came on the screen the mood of the film turns somber and immediately turns back happy when Baloo comes back. The tone of the film shifts towards the end. It feels like a shoe-horned environmental message criticizing Mankind and how he destroys the jungle through his technology (in this case fire). Something happens in the film that possibly turns the audience temporarily against Mowgli. Although it’s great that there were two musical numbers in the movie, it could have possibly used other songs in the film, not just the most popular ones.
Although it has more dark tones than the original, this film is a marvel! The story is still timeless, has great humor, and you will still be singing along. The magic might be lost watching it on your TV or tablet. This is a film that deserves your time to see it on the big screen, preferably in Imax. The all-star cast shines, and Favreau does a great job weaving everything together.