REVIEW — “Disney’s The Jungle Book”
Favreau's The Jungle Book not only manages to live up to the 1967 Walt Disney film so engraved in our minds and the collective consciousness, it outdoes it and has become the best cinematic adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's classic stories - one that is unlikely to be topped. While Disney's newest take on the story is true to the animated film - most of the major beats are there - Favreau's Jungle Book expands upon the story, deepening it and managing to be true to what came before. This newest iteration honors Walt Disney's adaptation of The Jungle Book, but the film is uniquely its own beast; it's exciting, funny, charming, adventurous, emotional, and has all the hallmarks that make a film a timeless, classic Disney feature.
Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s classic stories, Walt Disney’s 1967 animated classic The Jungle Book was the last animated feature to be personally overseen by Disney himself, and the first animated Disney film to be released after the passing of the company’s namesake. As such, the film stands as an important point of demarcation: there are the animated films before Disney’s death, and there are the animated films after Disney’s death. A financial and critical success that came when the studio needed it most, The Jungle Book has endured as an iconic and beloved animation masterpiece, standing as the definitive version of the story and eclipsing even Kipling’s original source material in both familiarity and popularity. With the animated Disney version serving as many audience’s introductions to Mowgli, Baloo, and their carefree jungle adventures, there was understandable trepidation when a live-action reboot was announced in the Summer of 2013.
Later that year, Jon Favreau – director of such family-friendly hits as Elf and Iron Man – came aboard the project, assuaging fears that Disney’s planned live-action reimagining would tarnish the reputation and cherished memories of the original. “I was born in ’66, [The Jungle Book] came out in ’67, I grew up with these characters,” Favreau told an assemblage of 7,500 Disney fans at the D23 Expo in Summer 2015. “And what was nice for me, Alan [Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios] grew up with the book. So we both had different perspectives on something that we both cared deeply about. And as we all sat and talked about it and developed it, finding the balance between the iconic, mythic power of the Kipling and all of the images that I loved growing up with from the animated feature, it was – how do you combine those things? And most importantly, how you do use today’s technology to take it to a different place than the film that already exists? How do you build upon that legacy?”
The answer lies within the latest advancements in photorealistic rendering, CGI, and motion capture technologies, the same kind of technology used to realize characters in Life of Pi and James Cameron’s Avatar. “The idea of going out to the jungle and shooting this, it just felt like it wouldn’t have the magic that the 1967 film had had. There was a dreamlike quality to it. There was a surreal quality to it. It was a high-water mark for character animation and to me, that’s what I remember about it. And so I wanted to make sure we preserved that,” Favreau shared. “But what Horn said was: ‘Look at the technology. Look at Life of Pi, Avatar. Why not use the technology to create a whole world that transports you? Let’s really embrace this new technology and see what we can do if we push its limit.'”
Visual effects supervisor Rob Legato (Avatar) and special effects teams Moving Picture Company (Guardians of the Galaxy, Cinderella) and Peter Jacksons’ Weta Digital (The Lord of the Rings, Avatar) brought the virtual world to life, with Favreau awing audiences by revealing that the film was shot entirely in downtown Los Angeles. Tech used includes the Arri Alexa digital camera, the Pace system, with the Simulcam (developed for Avatar) used to capture the 3D, making for a visually impressive look that received an uproarious standing ovation when the first footage debuted publicly at D23 last Summer. It was there that Sean Bailey, Disney’s president of production, called The Jungle Book “one of the most technologically advanced movies ever made,” seamlessly blending live-action with photorealistic CGI animals and environments.
“What makes us able to make this movie now is the technology to have photo-real animation,” said Favreau, who used only the most minimalist sets when bringing the jungles of India to life. “If the kid was walking 12 feet, we built 12 feet of jungle,” the filmmaker noted. “Each set was built for a single shot. I thought, ‘If we really set it up, could we do something that took it the level where you were watching something that was either photo-real or pleasantly elegant and beautiful and hypnotic?’”
Favreau – who was selected, in the words of Bailey, because the studio needed a filmmaker “who could get the nuance of the source material and the story’s legacy in Disney history” – pointed out that “taking the edge of technology and applying it to the old stories” is part of Disney’s legacy. “The best CGI for me is the kind that is so good it disappears,” Favreau added, making sure never to lose sight of what generations of people loved about the 1967 film. “We are trying to pay tribute, and we can also see that with the visual effects, we are pushing the technology. We are mixing the old story with cutting edge technology.”
“You are serving many masters when you make a film like this,” Favreau told a group of reporters at Disney’s El Capitan Theater in February. “You are trying to honor the memory, the emotional memory of people who grew up with this stuff. But you are also trying to make a movie that appeals to the full audience. … That is really what Disney set out to do.” Favreau, unlike many other filmmakers, doesn’t fall into one of the biggest pratfalls that have plagued many other, CGI-heavy blockbusters: he uses the technology as tools to tell a story, instead of relying on impressive but empty special effects to give the audience a visually beautiful but emotionally shallow experience. “You have to breath life into this thing,” Favreau said, “otherwise it’s just an exercise in technology. It needs to have a beating heart in there, and that is what your cast brings you.”
That cast – filled with Academy Award winners and nominees – includes Bill Murray as the lazy and affable sloth bear Baloo, Idris Elba as the vicious and intimidating Shere Khan, a scarred tiger with scorn for Man, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Mowgli’s wise and loyal companion, Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha, the young mancub’s adopted wolf mother, Giancarlo Espositio as adopted father Akela, Scarlett Johansson as the mysterious and hypnotic snake, Kaa, and Christopher Walken as a conniving Gigantopithecus known as King Louie. Newcomer Neel Sethi, in his feature debut, won the highly coveted role of Mowgli after an extensive search lead to the filmmakers looking at thousands of kids across several continents. Sethi embodies “the heart, humor, and daring of the character,” says casting director Sarah Finn. “He’s warm and accessible, yet also has an intelligence well beyond his years and impressed us all with his ability to hold his own in any situation. Even though he has no professional acting experience, his natural charisma and instincts jumped out at us.”
For all the stunning animation and digitally created environments, its the efforts of The Jungle Book‘s perfectly cast and perfectly utilized congregation of actors that help sell the inviting world that is presented. Bill Murray’s Baloo seemed to be the audience favorite – he’s essentially Murray in bear form – with the lovable, slacker bear being part conman and part used car salesman. Baloo’s breezy, down-to-Earth attitude is backed by a heart of gold, with his newfound relationship with Mowgli serving as the heart of the film. The jovial attitude shared between the two, enjoying life and bumming along to “The Bare Necessities,” is a highlight in a film packed with highlights – only for the most affecting moment of the film, shared between the boy and his bear companion, to come later and pull the emotional rug out from under you, leaving the audience with audible expressions of emotional response. This was an audience engaged and affected by what they were seeing, the film connecting with them on an emotional level – always the most impressive feat of any film, animated or otherwise.
While Johansson’s sinister Kaa makes but the briefest of appearances – essentially doling out necessary exposition – the film’s villain, Shere Khan, is intrusive, threatening, and like the best Disney villains, carries a weight and power behind him, his presence looming almost at all times. Idris Elba’s Shere Khan – whose visage bares the scars of man – is a ferocious creature and a threat not to be taken lightly; the beast has a prejudice that fills the beast with a seething, naked hatred of Mowgli that puts the young mancub in constant, persistent danger. Nyong’o’s Raksha is the warm, caring mother, and a fierce protector in her own right, with Esposito’s Akela presented as the the firm, proud stoic leader of Mowgli’s wolf pack. Walken’s Louie – presented here as a towering Gigantopithecus – is a Don Corleone type, a feared ruler with vast resources and even larger desires.
After the Red Flower (fire), King Louie is more formidable and menacing than his animated counterpart – a Disney creation, not birthed from Kipling’s stories – though the ape-king does engage in a new rendition of “I Wanna Be Like You,” with Richard B. Sherman, the surviving half of the Sherman brothers, returning to provide Walken’s rendition of the classic song with lyrics specific to the 2016 version. (Louie’s dedicated song is the only misstep in a film that otherwise nails all the right beats, feeling misplaced in a film that emphasizes character, story, and action, while lessening the importance of the 1967 film’s musical numbers. This film isn’t a musical, and the brief musical number comes late in a film that – aside from the briefest moment of two friends singing along as they cheerfully float down a river – doesn’t feature any musical sequences. It comes across as extrinsic, and perhaps should have been relegated to the cutting room floor).
All of the voice cast’s tremendous performances would have been for naught were it not for ten year old Sethi’s uncanny ability to help sell you on the computer generated world around him, with the young actor effortlessly presenting a boy who makes you forget that he’s interacting with green screens and animations that would be added later. Mowgli is both relatable and intuitive, brave but not fearless, vulnerable but not helpless, and is a happy, go-lucky kid whose penchant for “tricks” – creating and building tools that he uses to his advantage, helping him to navigate and survive a jungle where man and his ways are unwelcome – is at first discouraged before he learns that his skills don’t just make him different; they make him special.
“Casting is the most important element of any film and finding the right kid to play Mowgli was imperative,” said Favreau of Sethi’s casting. “Neel has tremendous talent and charisma. There is a lot riding on his little shoulders and I’m confident he can handle it.” Handle it he does, with the young actor’s portrayal of Mowgli anchoring the film and lending it its emotional resonance. If we don’t feel for this kid – and if we don’t like him – the movie doesn’t work. So much effort is put into depicting Mowgli as a generous, thoughtful, and caring boy who goes out of his way to help, making for a likable character that you want to root for. If The Jungle Book lacked that immediately identifiable human element, if Mowgli lacked that humanity that carries the film and makes us buy into him emotionally, the film would have fallen flat on its pretty face – a major fault it thankfully avoids.
The best reboots – or remakes, or “re-imaginings,” or whatever nomenclature you subscribe to – are not only faithful to their original sources, they add to the original to offer a fresh, new perspective that feels familiar without feeling foreign or as though its treading old ground. “We went back to the structure of it and saw what Kipling did because he offered a lot. We kind of picked between the two,” Favreau said. “The story structure of the 1967 film was good and offered a lot; so I stuck to it as much as I could. What I have tried to do is to focus on the images that I remember from it before going back to look at it again.”
The Jungle Book ups the action, the emotional stakes (and the emotional payoffs), and the peril – danger is ever present here, making for a film that is true to Walt Disney’s classic tale without ending up as a shameless ripoff or a needlessly dark, cynical take on a wholesome story. Disney’s newest presentation is taken seriously, but it never loses sight of the fun or the good-nature of that 1967 film – it’s as much as a pure, magical Disney tale as any. The 1967 and the 2016 films aren’t interchangeable; there’s enough similarities to warrant the “inspired by” credit, but the newest Jungle Book is, like Disney’s recent live-action Cinderella, a perfect blend of the animated classic with a healthy dose of newness and freshness that makes this film worth venturing to the theater for. Simply put, you’ve never seen The Jungle Book like this – the pulse-pounding action scenes and set pieces are visceral and ferocious, while presenting lovable characters and maintaining the classic Disney tone of an adventure suitable for all ages. Heart, humor, lessons, fun, action, and technology come together in a film that encapsulates the essence of what a Disney movie should be without feeling paint-by-numbers or as though it were cobbled together by committee.
Favreau’s The Jungle Book not only manages to live up to the 1967 Walt Disney film so engraved in our minds and the collective consciousness, it outdoes it and has become the best cinematic adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic stories – one that is unlikely to be topped. While Disney’s newest take on the story is true to the animated film – most of the major beats are there – Favreau’s Jungle Book expands upon the story, deepening it and managing to be true to what came before. This newest iteration honors Walt Disney’s adaptation of The Jungle Book, but the film is uniquely its own beast; it’s exciting, funny, charming, adventurous, emotional, and has all the hallmarks that make a film a timeless, classic Disney feature.
“We strive to both honor what’s come before while saying something new,” said Disney president of production Sean Bailey. “And with this title, the bar is very, very high.” The bar has not only been reached, it’s been surpassed – with Favreau’s adaptation of The Jungle Book standing as the pinnacle of Kipling’s stories on the big screen. The 3D IMAX presentation is immersive, taking you to the jungles of India without ever feeling obtrusive or distracting, nor does it come across as nothing but a lazily added gimmick. Vines, trees, and bushes create an environment with depth, putting you alongside Mowgli and the various wildlife encountered on his untamed adventure. Shere Khan and Kaa force themselves into the frame, invading your personal space, leaving you just about feeling their hot breath on your skin as they protrude from the confines of the screen. It all adds to the experience, marking one of the rare times that 3D adds to the picture instead of taking away.
“Big action spectacles are the only films that seem to make studios comfortable enough to use this level of artistry and technology in storytelling,” Favreau said of The Jungle Book. “And so the unique opportunity I’ve had is to use it for humor and emotion. Showing nature, showing animals—and really getting into that deep, mythic imagery, that always marries well with technology and always has. And so that’s fun for me.”
Inspired by Disney’s 1967 animated classic and bringing Rudyard Kipling’s timeless stories to life through the use of state-of-the-art technology, The Jungle Book is an immersive and impressive visual feast that seamlessly blends live-action with photo-realistic animation. As artificial as this world is, it’s rarely apparent – instead, you stop being awed by the visual effects not because they become any less impressive, but because they’re wholly convincing and the story and its characters are as engrossing as their surrounding environment. Favreau’s Jungle Book carries all the best attributes of the kind of classic, magical, and beloved Disney films that enchant us, and stay with us long after we’ve left the theater. The Jungle Book in IMAX 3D is a stunning, thrilling adventure best experienced on the biggest screen near you.[wpdevart_youtube]RYbD8roPxxE[/wpdevart_youtube]
Presented by Walt Disney Pictures and director Jon Favreau, The Jungle Book stars Neel Sethi and features the voices of Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, Giancarlo Esposito and Christopher Walken. The Jungle Book opens in 3D and IMAX 3D this Friday, April 15th.
The Jungle Book: 5/5
★ ★ ★ ★ ★