“Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky, And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die. As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back; For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
Disney has been remaking their classic animated features into live-action films for a while now, and I haven’t really been impressed at the effort. There seemed no need for them. It simply looked like a money grab. Disney’s The Jungle Book is a film that needed to be made, because it couldn’t have been made before now. It’s not often, in the age of FX we live in, that I can say I’ve never seen anything like this, but bringing an entire jungle of completely CGI photorealistic animals who speak, and never having it look fake is astounding. The entire film is. Jon Favreau has combined a strong script leaning much more on Kipling’s books, but giving homage to the 1967 animated film, with groundbreaking effects and one of the best performances I’ve ever seen given by a child to make his best film yet by far. I can’t find flaw in it. In fact, I would go so far to say that this surpasses Kipling (whose prose I never really enjoyed) as the definitive version of The Jungle Book story. Quite simply, it’s a masterpiece.
The 1967 animated version of Kipling’s books was a musical comedy. This is NOT a comedy. While the narrative follows fairly closely to the animated version, with expansion for character development (yes of animals), the tone of this film can be extremely dark at times. Elements like Kaa and King Louie, who were played solely for comedy in the animated film are darkly menacing. The elephants, who were a joke in the animated film, are the majestic lords of the jungle to whom all bow. Parents with small children should be aware that some of these scenes are extremely intense, and Mowgli bleeds. He doesn’t tumble through the jungle, tangle with tigers, or get conned into gather honey for Baloo without emerging with scars and scrapes. To me, that lends authenticity to what Favreau pushes at all times: realism. Everything feels real. Everything feels possible. This is a world you’re sunk into and inhabit, and the Jungle is every bit a character in the film as Mowgli and the animals. Drought, monsoons, dense vegetation, mudslides, and fire storms help keep Favreau’s movie barreling at as a kinetic a pace as Mowgli scrambling through the jungle.
You fall in love with these animal characters. Genuinely love them, like they were the friends and family they have been to Mowgli his entire life. Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) narrates the film and is a firm, easily exasperated guardian to the child he found. The wolves who raise Mowgli get great performances from Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o. Bill Murray’s Baloo could not be more different than Phil Harris’ animated hippie. This sloth bear is a con artist, gruff with a heart of gold. There’s much less comedy in the film than you’d expect, but most of it comes from Baloo. Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa is terrifying. That whole sequence is almost as brilliant as Monkey City. With all the animals, but especially Kaa and King Louie, you’re awestruck by the mass of these animals. They’re immense, dwarfing Mowgli. Christopher Walken gives a very nuanced portrayal of Louie that’s makes you legitimately fear him. But there is nothing in the jungle to fear that compares to Idris Elba’s Shere Kahn. Of all the voice casting, this is the one I was most excited about, because Elba’s deep and rumbling voice are perfect for the one-eyed tiger. Shere Kahn is elevated in this film to the very to ranks of Disney villains. He’s terrifying and his fights with Bagheera and Baloo are fearsome collisions. You feel the impact of hundreds of pounds of claws and teeth meeting in desperate combat.It’s certainly not all darkness, though. This film does not work without the only human in it: Neel Sethi’s Mowgli. Favreau draws a performance out of Sethi that is astounding. He’s completely guileless and in his wonder and awe, the audience sees through his eyes the majesty of this world. There’s never a moment when I felt Sethi was acting. He seemed absolutely living and reacting to talking beasts around him. It’s a coming-of-age story at heart, and Mowgli’s showdown with Shere Kahn ties the entire film together, bringing to bear moments from the very first beats of the film, all the lessons Mowgli learns upon his journey through the jungle, and all the allies he’s made along the way.
Disney’s The Jungle Book is not a musical. Two songs “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” are incorporated into the film, the first as character development for Mowgli and Baloo’s friendship and the latter spoken more than sung by Walken as he tries to wring the secrets of man’s red flower from the terrified boy. Walken gets to full-out sing the number, as do many of the other songs return over the utterly charming end credits.
This is a spoiler, but you can bail at this point if you don’t want it ruined. The ending for the film is changed completely. Even as a child, I never, ever bought that Mowgli was just going to follow that girl into the village and be accepted by man. Two seconds later, he’d have been running back into the jungle ahead of a horde of stone-throwing villagers screaming, “WOLF BOY!” I love the new ending. It seems much more natural with the flow of how Favreau told the story and provides a satisfying up-note on which to end this latest Disney gift.
Last year was a big year for Disney, but this year may end up being even better. Following Zootopia with Jungle Book, Civil War three weeks away, and Finding Dory, Doctor Strange, Star Wars: Rogue One all on tap, Disney has never been stronger. Disney’s The Jungle Book is a miraculous film. I highly recommend seeing it in IMAX. It’s beautiful, thrilling, moving and another classic from the House of the Mouse, and easily 2016’s best film yet.