“The Jungle Book” Movie Review


     Turning animated classics into live action extravaganzas can be a tricky proposition.  Rival studios have continually attempted to out do one another with various takes on everything from “Snow White” to “Cinderella”, while achieving several different levels of success.  With Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” now the focus of this treatment, the challenges associated with retelling the story in a format that will be touted as live action, but is actually every bit as animated as the Disney original, will certainly be the filmmaker’s ability to captivate while still telling a strong story.  And while we will have to wait until 2018 for motion capture whiz Andy Serkis’ take on the material, director Jon Favreau has set a lofty standard for Serkis to follow with Disney’s latest version of their own beloved classic.

     When you think about the right fit for a film like “The Jungle Book”, the prototypical director would likely have the resume Favreau brings to the table.  Having started in the business with strong indie roots before making his way into the realm of some of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters of the last ten years, Favreau excels at using the technology available to him to enhance the story, rather than overpower it.  We know this based on his work on “Ironman”, the 2008 film which literally launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it today, and created arguably the most important foundational character in the “Avengers” franchise.  This was no small feat, and neither was his return to the indie scene in 2014 with his heart felt father/son food comedy “Chef”, a film which cemented Favreau’s unique ability to tell stories with or with out the benefit of CGI.  His films, in other words, are always, at their core, about something important.  Be it family, or relationships, or the struggle between good and evil, Favreau ensures the story comes first whether he has all the bells and whistles at his disposal or not.  Michael Bay and Zach Snyder should take note.

     Unlike the overdone spectacle of a “Transformers” movie or the unnecessarily dark and grim confines of the recent “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, Favreau handles “The Jungle Book” knowing the characters will need a significant update for today’s audience, but also knows the importance of allowing the tone to remain whimsical and larger than life.  Which is to say, this film is a massive departure from the Disney original.  And while the only human character, Mowgli (Neel Sethi), is as likable as ever, the remainder of the cast, voiced by several notable stars, remains in the form of various animals who come to life thanks to some of the most impressive visual effects work of the last five years.  With comparisons to the effects driven “Avatar” being inevitable, the filmmakers here have achieved new heights in the industry with the seamless blending of Sethi into both live action and computer generated sets with an array of photorealistic animal characters who each take on a life of their own with both their screen presence and their dialogue.  It’s absolutely amazing how far these effects have come since the days of Ray Harryhausen and his eye popping stop motion creations in films such as 1977’s “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger”, a film this one reminded me of.

     Screenwriter Justin Marks deserves a ton of credit here, abandoning much of the simplistic nature of the original and giving each and every character important things to say and do.  Voiced by Idris Elba, Shere Khan is a menacing villain throughout, as he displays the ferocious instincts of a man eating predator, while acting out the mannerisms of your typical school yard bully.  And this is one of the best aspects of the film, since the filmmakers could have chosen to tone the character down.  Instead, Shere Khan remains vicious until the very end, ensuring the film will have that crucial element which ensures it to be a genuine crowd pleaser.  Khan isn’t the only animal who has been significantly enhanced however.  Beginning with Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), Mowgli’s adoptive wolf mother and father, and the entrances of Baloo (Bill Murray), and King Louie (Christopher Walken), the film allows for Mowgli to find himself in the center of several beautifully constructed action set pieces, which are all the more impressive in the full frame IMAX presentation.

     When a filmmaker takes on a project like this, it becomes important to not only put your own signature on the film, but also to respect the source material.  Since we know people generally hate it when movies take liberties on the stories we deem as classic, Favreau certainly walked a tight rope here, but his version of the story is by far the superior one when compared to all that has come before.  He never forgets the importance of each character’s role in Mowgli’s journey and ensures each and every scene is as powerful from the words spoken and the decisions made by the characters as they are from the enhancements made by the visual effects wizards.  When Mowgli meets Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) in the jungle, we believe, if even for a short moment, that his journey is about to be cut short permanently.  It’s as if her hypnotic power somehow harnesses the audience as well, which is also something nearly each and every scene in “The Jungle Book” tends to do whether it be the scent of an approaching predator or the realization as to who your true family really is.  Favreau’s film is engrossing in its approach to Kipling’s work and awe inspiring at nearly every turn as he has, once again, melded together the crucial elements of character and story with the high end gloss of today’s mainstream expectations.  GRADE: A