When Walt Disney released the Jungle Book, back in 1967, it was a miracle the movie had ever been made. There is no secret that the film had a troubled start, and Bill Peet, a filmmaker at the Disney company for over 30 years, left the animation house after his original concept for the movie was harshly rejected by Walt Disney himself. After a huge restructure of talent behind the movie was made, progress on the film started up again and became the final film that Walt Disney himself would see made, as the legendary man died 10 months before the release of the film. After viewing this new Jungle Book, I can enthusiastically say that this film honors the legacy left over from the original animated masterpiece and is one of the finest films I have ever seen.
Director Jon Favreau, recently known for helming the first two Iron Man movies, is an inspired choice for taking the reins on Disney’s live action adaptation of not only Rudyard Kipling’s original novel, but that of Walt Disney’s own 1967 film. This adaptation is stellar in its tone, its vision and in its heart. The story of Mowgli, the man-cub, trying to find his place amongst the animal kingdom, knowing only of the wolves who raised him, and the animals within his view, is treated with a tremendous amount of care and skill.
Before I go any further, I must mention the film’s balance is between two pillars, both of which must be perfectly handled with regard to the film working at all. The first pillar is the digital animals that make up the cast; Baloo, Bagheera, Shere Kahn, Raksha, Akela and King Louie. Each and every one of the actors absolutely nails their characters. Bagheera, voiced by Ben Kingsley is wonderful and honestly, I don’t know of a better actor for the role. His drive and determination for the protection of Mowgli is remarkable and touching. Bill Murray has a career best performance here as the lovable and carefree Baloo. You can’t help but have a smile on your face each and every time he is on screen. Idris Elba is incredibly menacing as Shere Kahn, who has a commanding presence here, and backs up his threats in one of the most vicious scenes ever in a Disney film. Christopher Walken is a surprising choice for King Louie, but it is one gamble that pays off in spades. Both Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito as the wolf pack parents of Mowgli have some incredible scenes throughout the film. There are several other smaller characters here that have some really great moments to shine, whether they be heartwarming, adorable, or in the case of the honey scene, just downright hysterical.
The second pillar is easily the most important, and that pillar is Neel Sethi. While you won’t recognize the name, as his only other credited work is a 2013 short film called Diwali, he is the heart and soul of this adventure as his Mowgli, the man-cub, is astonishing. From the first minute he is on screen, down to the final seconds, you will believe he is in that jungle, conversing with all forms of animal life. Some actors don’t quite prevail at talking or interacting with digitally created creatures or what-have-you, as they’ll usually be acting opposite tennis balls, or a taped X on the floor, but Sethi has shown he is remarkably skilled for being not only just 12 years old, but that in a sense, in his first acting role.
The visual effects team behind this movie is incredible. Everything from the jungle itself, to each of the animals that make up this story is painfully detailed and executed to near perfection. It’s safe to say that even a few years ago; this movie would have suffered greatly in its quality. It’s no wonder that Zoltan Korda’s 1942 version would see technical limitations get in the way of adapting the source material faithfully. That version saw Mowgli interact more with the human world than that of the animal kingdom, with most of the animal scenes played out like national geographic documentary than anything set in a narrative world.
Each of the core animal characters; Baloo, Bagheera, Shere Kahn and King Louie have an insane amount of detail to them. The scars and burns on Shere Kahn paint a history on his face that doesn’t even need the story told, you just know exactly what happened. Baloo has a charming and childish feel to him, the way he waddles, or sits, is hilarious. The way Bagheera moves, or the small details in his fur is a wonder to behold. I was also impressed with the detail given to Mowgli. After many of the events that unfold throughout the two hour epic, his body is covered in bee stings, cuts and scars that look so realistic, you can’t help but cringe on the close ups shots of the bruises.
The Jungle Book is simply put, incredible. The care and attention given to this movie is almost unheard of. Neel Sethi is a revelation as Mowgli, and his performance here is sensational. Given the nature of Disney and their music, Sethi and Murray deliver a fantastic version of “The Bare Necessities” that is such a joy to watch. I kept thinking, on my drive home from the theatre, of anything I thought that was lacking in the film, but I simply cannot. I mean, I guess they could have used Kaa a little better, but that is just me reaching for something I don’t think is really that much of an issue in the first place. Jon Favreau has proven himself here that he is a Marvelous Director, (see what I did there?) and his adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s epic tale is an absolute wonder. The Jungle Book is one of my favorite original Disney animated films, and this live action counterpart is just as memorable and touching as the 1967 classic. Walt would be proud.