Review: The Jungle Book

April 15, 2016
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When I was a little kid, my dad sang to me The Bear Necessities from the original 1967 Disney film The Jungle Book.  I’m not sure if he sang it because that song resonated with him and his philosophy in life or if he was trying to instill that outlook in me or maybe he just liked it.  In a weird twist of fate, the song I Wanna Be Like You, also from the same movie, is what I sang to my son when he was a baby because it was one of the first things that made him laugh.  As silly and mediocre as that ’67 version is, it has a very, very special place in my heart, as you can see.  When I heard that Disney was adding it to it’s ever-growing list of classic animated films they’re turning into live-action features (Peter Pan is the latest to be added), I was so nervous.  A live-action film with talking animals sounds as stupid as it gets, right?  Wrong.  The Jungle Book is a masterpiece in every sense of the word and the finest film from director John Favreau so far…and yes I know that includes Iron Man, Chef and Elf.

 

The 1894 book, written by Rudyard Kipling, is one of his finest.  The fact that it’s one of his children’s books makes no difference in that it captures the heart and soul of family, community, adventure and coming-of-age.  The only thing he ever wrote that tugs at my heartstrings more is his poem If, which is required, tearful reading for anyone who has a son.  This film version isn’t a straight version of the book but it’s closer to being that than the ’67 animated version.  Favreau has made a hybrid of the visceral book depicting the Indian jungles of the late 19th Century and the light, goofy world that Walt Disney created as he was dying (it was his last film).  There are moments of darkness and moments of whimsy and it’s all perfectly balanced.

 

The casting choices for the voices are some of the best done in years.  Bill Murray steals the show (as he does in everything) as Baloo.  What starts off as somewhat stilted turns into the classic Murray performance that reminds us of Ghostbusters, Caddyshack and Stripes.  Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3, Ghandi) is Bagheera, Idris Elba (Pacific Rim, Thor) is terrifying as Shere Khan and Christopher Walken brings the house down (literally) as King Louie.  This cast couldn’t be more on point and impressive for bringing these animals to life.  However, as good as they are, this film would be nothing if it wasn’t for the charisma of 13-year-old newcomer Neel Sethi who is astounding as Mowgli.  He carries the weight of this project on his tiny, little shoulders flawlessly.  To know that he was performing opposite of nothing for most of the film makes his range of evoking emotion that much more incredible and I hope we see much more of him.

 

In the last decade we’ve seen some films that have blown us away with what motion-capture performance and CGI are capable of.  The Jungle Book might be one of the finest examples to-date.  The trick isn’t to blow us away with how good the special FX are, it’s to make us forget we’re even looking at special FX.  Favreau’s team has created characters that look so real that you forget that they’re not within one or two minutes of the film beginning.  Because of the realism this creates, there are some moments in this PG-rated movie that feel too intense for kids five and under.  That being said, I’m still bringing my four-year-old because there’s 99% amazing wonder for children that will leave thinking they just watched actual talking animals than the 1% of times that it gets too scary.  You know your kid and what they can handle so go with that in mind.

 

I totally understand that Disney announcing that they’re taking all their old animated classics and making live-action versions seems like greedy squeezing of blood from a stone.  Some have been average-at-best like Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent but others have been excellent like Cinderella and now The Jungle Book.  This gives me more hope for the endless list that is slated for release and who knows, maybe this time next year I’ll be here saying the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast or Dumbo or Pinocchio is one of the best films of the year.  I certainly I wouldn’t have believed it about The Jungle Book but it’s incredibly true.