As with all Disney films, The Jungle Book begins on a blue sky as the camera swoops downward over Cinderella’s iconic castle. But there’s a surprising difference this time: the castle has been flattened, pastel-colored and hand drawn as if out of a pop-up storybook. It’s a simplified, retro touch that appears out of place in what is undoubtedly the most technologically advanced movie Disney has ever made. Yet it’s also the perfect opening, as it lets the film declare its honest intentions from the start. This new Jungle Book is the future of the pop-up storybook, an idea endangered by the branching viewing choices of Netflix and endless complexities of iPads that kids have at their disposal nowadays. Disney wishes to reinstate the simplicity of the storybook back into blockbusters, no matter how big or how expensive. The results are visually astounding, if not particularly substantial.
Whereas Disney’s past live-action revivals (Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful and Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent) felt like ‘committee’ movies crafted by impersonal businessmen in a Disney boardroom, director Jon Favreau tackles The Jungle Book much the same way Kenneth Branagh treated last year’s wonderful Cinderella – by embracing the straightforwardness and clarity of their sources. Mowgli is a boy raised in the jungle by wolves. He has a mentor and protector in panther Bagheera, who agrees to return the child to the ‘man village’ of his birth after human-hating tiger Shere Kahn declares his intentions to kill him. As in the beloved 1967 animation by Disney and the original Rudyard Kipling books, the story plays out episodically, with various creatures of the jungle trying to kill or exhort Mowgli. In addition from Bagheera, Mowgli finds an unlikely friend and guardian in lackadaisical grizzly bear Baloo, who teaches him a thing or two on the path to an inevitable showdown with Shere Kahn.
Of course, the marching elephant in the room is that this time the well-known tale is depicted using the most sophisticated computer graphics available to create a world of photorealistic talking animals and eye-popping jungle vistas. Maybe even more so than Avatar and probably on par with Gravity, The Jungle Book is a palpable step forward for what CG can accomplish, and the animators must be singled out for their achievements. It’s one thing to create a bear that looks indistinguishable from the real thing (come on, The Revenant just did that!), but it’s an entirely different thing for that bear to look real while utilizing a full range of expressions without it becoming creepy. The same goes for every creature on screen – authentic animal movements are combined with distinctly human emoting to create artificial beasts that can elicit genuine audience empathy. The closest comparison is Fox’s new Planet of the Apes movies, but I imagine it’s at least slightly easier to anthropomorphize moneys than tigers and wolves.
The jungle itself is just as important as any of the characters of course, and the impressive environments are a step in the right direction after Disney’s other effects-driven world (especially in Oz) felt fake and plastic-y, with the actors clearly walking through green screen sets with everything else added afterwards like window dressing. There was never a sense that the characters could reach out and touch their worlds and the result was the cinematic equivalent of going to grandma’s house only to find all the beautiful furniture covered in plastic wrap. This hamstrung the whole point of these movies, to immerse the audience in a lived-in universe completely unlike our own. The Jungle Book finally hits that sense of immersion just right. When a character touches something in the foreground, it will often trigger movement in the background, subtly adding to the believability of the space.
The movie also isn’t afraid to show the tangible effects of the jungle and its denizens on Mowgli, as huge bee sting welts and bloody monkey scratches appear on his skin to viscerally illustrate how much of a physical world this is. Additionally, shots are dynamically composed to convey grand scale and menacing depth to Mowgli’s surroundings. We see the jungle not just through the eyes of a human, but through the eyes of a child, and that creates an important equalizing effect in which moviegoers of any age can feel the same sense of being engulfed by something truly huge and wondrous. However, time will tell how well a movie that is so heavy on special effects can age over time. With the rapid progress of technology, it’s easy to imagine the entire thing looking fake and weird ten years down the line, and that will take away most of what makes it so special. After all, the film doesn’t exactly break new ground with the story it tells, and the animated version has already proven it has no expiration date.
Luckily, the film has virtue beyond spectacle and that is thanks mostly to the Mouse House’s smart decision to choose Jon Favreau as director. Favreau has always put heart above all things. It’s what gained him recognition with Swingers, it’s how he was able launch the largest franchise in the world with Iron Man, and it’s how he was able to bounce back after a few missteps with Chef. And with The Jungle Book, it’s what allows him to maintain a real sincere sense of spirit and soul in a movie where basically everything is fake save for one little boy. That boy is the vessel for much of the heart Favreau injects into the movie, and he’s played by newcomer Neel Sethi. Though he’s certainly no Jacob Tremblay, Sethi makes up for his acting inexperience with scrappy enthusiasm befitting the classic character.
As for the other talent, the voice cast is another noteworthy achievement. The movie depends very much on the audience’s knowledge of who is playing each character (if you didn’t notice how much the cast was emphasized in the marketing), and their acting personas find their way into their jungle roles, conveying real human presence underneath all that fur. Bill Murray is of course the most obvious, with his sarcastic hedonism perfectly matching 1967 Balloo. Idris Elba follows up his terrifying role in Beasts of No Nation by playing an actual beast, one that stands toe to toe with The Lion King’s Scar in terms of feline menace. In the end it’s Christopher Walken’s giant simian King Louie that stands out, though. Without giving anything away, Walken really gives it his all. Perhaps the only disappointment is one born of expectation, and that is Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa. Not only is her distinctive voice distracting, she is relegated to sleek expository device without anything to really chew on (until the credits, that is).
The Jungle Book is a light watch, maybe a bit too much for older audiences when it isn’t using special effects to make them feel like kids again. And though it may not hold up to repeat viewings or have much impact decades down the line, it’s also a case study in the benefits of streamlining over expansion, a clear differentiation that Disney only now seems to be re-grasping. Back in 2004, the company released Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, a movie that was lauded for its breezy, entertaining, all-ages adventure attributes. Only a few years later came Pirate of the Caribbean: At World’s End, everything the original was not – incredibly convoluted, unpleasantly long, and surprisingly dark (a child hangs in the first scene). At some point, Disney had forgotten that to create a world that one can get lost in, doesn’t mean they need to throw so much at the audience that they literally feel lost. My point is, a different director in a different time at Disney might have tried to make a franchise out of The Jungle Book which delved deep into Kaa’s troubled backstory and promised to show us Shere Kahn’s extended, even more menacing family over the next two or three movies. But Favreau went with the Bare Necessities and took the Black Pearl path. He takes the right path.
Score: 4 out of 5