You know the story but you’ve never seen The Jungle Book like this.
2016’s live action Jungle Book film marks the fifth time Disney has adapted Kipling’s classic stories for the screen. You read that right. ComingSoon has a nice rundown of the cinematic history of the story if you’re interested in learning more, but just let that sink in for a second. Obviously there is something special about the story of Mowgli for the House of Mouse to keep coming back to it so many times, and they obviously think they have something special this time to try yet again to top the beloved 1967 cartoon. They’re right.
Somewhere between a remake of the original Disney version and a more faithful adaptation of the source material, this movie takes goofy cartoon antics, jungle peril, adds in some wholly original material and blends. Not like a Blendtec, but more like Bob Ross did with his artist’s pallet, bringing new life to the same old ingredients. Not so similar to the original that it feels superfluous (Cinderella), or so subversive to the point of feeling sacrilegious and senseless (Maleficent), it feels familiar enough to tickle the nostalgia nodes, but offers an entirely new experience that invokes a fresh sense of wonder. The true measure of success for The Jungle Book is whether it is something a new generation will welcome into their hearts and imaginations just like we did with the beloved original. It is.
Most of the characters you remember are back, and then some. Baloo, Bagheera, Shere Khan, Kaa, and of course King Louie. These favorites you remember are joined by the wolves Akela and Raksha and a host of other minor animals even more entertaining than those British vultures. The voice cast is nothing less than stunning, featuring Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong’o, and Giancarlo Esposito. The most striking thing about this cast is how well they fit the characters. Normally with such recognizable actors lending their voices to a film I can get distracted picturing the actors rather than the onscreen characters. Not here. Even someone as distinct sounding as Christopher Walken fit this version of King Louie perfectly, becoming the giant ape. Scarlett Johansson turns the conniving Kaa into a femme fatale that oozes smokey jazz. She helps Mowgli wrap his head around who he is, whilst wrapping herself around his body in a deadly embrace. Will he escape in time?
The most important cast member is of course the young Neel Sethi who portrays Mowgli. Acting entirely against green screens and reacting to nothing but director’s instructions and puppets, he’s the perfect little jungle boy. Utterly relateable to kids, he’s a plucky hero they will be able to look up to. His version of Mowgli is a blend of seriousness and fun, like the rest of the movie. It’s a formula that’s jarring at times, particularly when characters occasionally break out in song but to me those moments work. Baloo growling out The Bare Necessities is a reprieve from the more intense times (and there are very intense scenes), and King Louie’s musical number is jarring in just the right way, even if it’s sort of distracting.
The one thing that can’t be emphasized enough is how stunning this movie looks. While I wasn’t as blown away by the 3D as others have been, it is still excellent. Other than Sethi and probably a few props he interacts with, the entire film is photorealistic CG animation. In fact, I would be tempted to call this an animated film that features a live action character, much like a film such as Ted that features an animated one is labeled as live action. The believability of the animals and scenery is at such a level that would make James Cameron blush – it puts Avatar to shame. And I have to think that convincing the human eye that recognizable plants and animals are real is harder than creating a fully invented world. There is exactly one scene in the entire movie where I felt like the use of green screen was obvious. The rest is seamless and beautiful.
Of course it doesn’t matter how good a movie looks is it’s not a good movie. But this is a good movie. This is a fantastic movie in fact. Exciting enough to thrill even adults, joyful and goofy enough to bring laughter and cheers from kids, it is just the right mixture and should prove to be an instant classic if ever there was such a thing. It also features one of the most entertaining credits sequences you will ever see.
Mrs. Hamster did not screen this film
Brother Hamster says:
“Looks gorgeous, but the realism and goofiness (I’m looking at you Walken) don’t always mesh quite right.”
My rating: Five out of five hats
The Jungle Book swings into 4,028 theaters, including IMAX 3D, April 15