Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Jon Favreau. Screenplay by Justin Marks; based upon the books by Rudyard Kipling. Produced by Jon Favreau, Brigham Taylor. Music by John Debney. Photographed by Bill Pope. Edited by Mark Livolsi. Production designed by Christopher Glass, Abhijeet Mazumder. Starring Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken.
Jon Favreau’s new film version of The Jungle Book counts three major points of inspiration: Rudyard Kipling’s original 1893 series of children’s stories, the 1967 Disney animated classic that cheerfully rewrote Kipling, and (most crucially) astonishing achievements in cutting-edge special effects. The new movie charts a tricky course by trying to honor both Kipling and Disney, and it does so by successfully creating a world in and of its own. And yes, I mean “world.” Effects are to be expected when we’re discussing a story about talking animals, but it’s not just the beasts that are completely computer-generated here, so are the endless landscapes: the trees, the plains, the rivers and mountains and valleys and plateaus. Aside from various special effects houses, this production never once left Los Angeles.
This is the correct (if expensive) move, because Kipling’s jungle, located in India, is not a real place. Not really, anyway. What he created in his stories is more of a super-jungle that unspools in endless directions, serving as a stage for archetypal adventure fables. It is a jungle with a capital “J,” a place that, like Barrie’s Neverland, is home to endless surprise and invention. Kipling, of course, was a proud colonialist and more than a little unenlightened. But he lived in India as a boy and again as an adult writer, and you can see him peering into the underbrush of his birthplace with rapacious, romantic imagination, like a child of today looking outside his backyard and wondering with delight.
Favreau’s jungle operates on a similar level. It’s a stunning sprawl that seems to wind its way into dreamscape and then back again, and the CGI method gives Favreau license to not twist composition to fit tone, but instead to build each shot from the ground up. In one the movie’s best visuals, the young hero Mowgli (Neel Sethi) emerges into a canopy full of branches that twist and curl into frightful infinity—all the better the hide the thick, sinister coils of the python Kaa (Scarlett Johannson). (It’s well-worth seeing in 3D, by the way).
The movie takes its primary cues from Disney, focusing on Mowgli, a human orphan who is adopted by the jungle, and then is stalked by a tiger and other parties once he comes of age. The tone, however, has been elevated out of the realm of jolly musical comedy and into something much more primal (though still with some music). Kipling might approve of the way the story has been pushed in the direction of adventure, with dashes of real majesty and menace. There are beautiful encounters with a pack of elephants, who are revered as caretakers of the wildneress. Bowing to them is not optional, and they more than earn their keep. And the savagely villainous tiger Shere Khan here speaks not with the wry, wicked amusement of George Sanders from the cartoon (who you could imagine talking his victims into his waiting jaws) but with the fierce, rumbling tones of Idris Elba. This may be a family film, but it’s also one that takes the natural laws of the jungle quite seriously. Parents should be warned that it doesn’t shy away from an appropriate sense of intensity. Like the best Disney films, it knows that once in a while, life (whether in the wild or not) is scary.
That’s maybe the most thrilling thing about Favreau’s Jungle Book: it somehow captures Kipling’s method of making the wilderness accessible and vivid, but not made either domesticated or toothless by trips through too many focus groups. It gives the animals dialogue, yes, and some of it is for laughs, but none of it is insulting, lowest-common denominator stuff, and it’s all modulated in a way that works in concert with the visuals and doesn’t feel out of place. Compare that to, say, Disney’s 2000 film Dinosaur, which uncomfortably joined photorealistic backgrounds and creatures with jarringly cute dialogue. The creatures like Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley) have a real dignity to them. Johansson as Kaa is seductive and pleasing, as she should be. The monkey king Louie peers at Mowgli out of the darkness of an abandoned, overgrown temple like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, and when he speaks with the voice of Christopher Walken, he evokes that uncanny tone that Walken sometimes has of a powerful man who needs to threaten but it worried he is coming on too strong. Even Baloo the bear, voiced by the indispensable Bill Murray, doesn’t feel at a right angle to the material, maybe because despite his humorous lines he never really stops being a bear and starts being Bill Murray.
The storytelling itself, though reminiscent of the Disney film, thrums with an upgraded energy. There’s new elements re-appropriated from Kipling for this go-round (like when a lack of rain calls a water truce, where predators and prey can drink from the same parched riverbed in peace) and a deeper meditation on what the difference is between man and animal. Shere Khan’s view, that when Mowgli becomes dangerous the minute he starts being a man, is given some sympathy and weight, and it leads to what might be a miracle in modern blockbuster filmmaking: a fiery, apocalyptic battle between man and beast that actually directly ties into the themes of the film. Wonderful.
None of this would work, though, if the film didn’t have a strong lead at its center. Sethi, as Mowgli, is given a near-impossible task for a young actor: to be the only human and react to CGI creatures as if they were right there next to him, all while wearing an unforgiving loincloith. Not only does Sethi pull this off, but the movie trusts him. In a film like this, with CGI talking animals, you can imagine a director cutting to the child less and less, in order to both showcase the hard work of the effects technicians and also paper over the cracks of a lesser performance. Not here. Favreau correctly judges that this is Mowgli’s journey, and his throughline is most important: so much of the story plays across Mowgli’s face and actions, and the decision to make him more proactive than his rather dopey cartoon counterpart helps tap into the revised story’s real power.
The Jungle Book is a surefooted step for the Disney Studios’ campaign to remake their classics, after the real disappointments of the wrong-headed Maleficent and the obnoxious Alice in Wonderland (although billions of dollars of revenue tell me I’m wrong about both of them). This one joins Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella from last year as a live-action update that does the brand proud, and while it lacks the Branagh film’s pageantry (naturally), it substitutes a significant beauty of its own (and has the good sense to keep some of the better songs from the original movie, although some of them are shuttled to the end credits). Like Avatar, you can go to it just to swim in the gorgeous visuals, and if The Jungle Book sets itself up for perhaps an inevitable sequel…well, why not? There’s plenty of stories to tell in Kipling’s jungle. That’s the point.