Leave your snark and scepticism at the door. The latest live-adaptation of a Disney classic is not the nostalgia-plying cash grab some may write it off as. The Jungle Book is a storybook lovingly brought to life with barrels of heart and some of the most stunning photorealistic animation you’ve ever seen. We’re talking an even greater evolution than what we’ve previously seen in Avatar (2009) and Life of Pi (2012). When not smiling gleefully at the screen, I spent the vast majority of my time in the cinema in awe of the technical wizardry before my eyes. I was determined to pin point, with precision, the exact moments where the animation ceased and real world began. Eventually I had to conclude that the task was near impossible to achieve. At the very end of the film, the words “Filmed in Downtown Los Angeles” scrolled across the screen and I then knew that the only real thing we ever saw was the boy.
The Jungle Book is the absolute definition of movie magic. The kind of film where you are left speechless being unable to decipher how they did any of it. Unlike so many other blockbusters that rely solely on their special effects to mislead the audience into feeling entertained, this is a perfect family adventure that interweaves technical brilliance with earnest storytelling.
Welcome back Mr. Jon Favreau. We’ve missed you.
After Iron Man 2 (2008) and Cowboys & Aliens (2011) both failed to live up to their hype and expectations, it appeared that Favreau needed a sabbatical from the Hollywood machine. He returned in 2014 with Chef, an incredibly personal project that was obviously a reflection (and critical rejection) of his experience in dealing with the big studios and their politics. The film made it clear that the filmmaker needed to scale things down, in order to rejuvenate his creative spirit.
And boy has the rest paid off.
Favreau’s return to blockbuster filmmaking is a triumphant success, proving to the world that he is one of the most versatile directors in the business. His visually immersive jungle landscape is deftly orchestrated with beauty, wonderment, adventure and a simple, yet powerful message about the destructiveness of humanity.
Of course it also doesn’t hurt having iconic cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix, Spider-Man 2, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) by your side to compose 104 minutes of beautifully framed images either.
The story follows the same classic threads that have been played out previously. Mowgli, played by 12-year old Neel Sethi, is a human cub raised by wolves Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito – Gus from Breaking Bad). When a fearsome Bengal tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba – amazing) threatens the boy’s life, Mowgli must leave the jungle and return to the man village with the help of Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and Baloo (Bill Murray).
While newcomer Sethi does a commendable job as the only human cast member, it’s the all-star supporting cast, and the animators/software that brings them all to life, that are the real stars of this spectacular show.
The voice cast is world class, with many of the artists providing some of their best work in years.
I mean who doesn’t want to live in a world where Ben Kingsley is your wise panther mentor and your best friend is a loveable and charming grizzly bear played by Bill Murray? Heck, if I had to have a villainous tiger hunting me down, I’d be glad if it turned out to be Idris Elba.
Elba makes for a truly frightening villain, whose towering voice terrorises and intimidates with exactness. His methodical and sneering introduction sets the tone for the alpha predator, and his lingering menace leaves an impact that can be felt even when he’s not on screen. Elba certainly makes a case for the best cinematic villain of 2016 to date.
One of the highlight set pieces involves a Bornean orangutan – resembling Gigantopithecus voiced (and sung by) the legendary Christopher Walken. His wildly entertaining turn as
Don King Louie, channels both The Godfather and Apocalypse Now to provide yet another iconic performance in a career that has been defined time and time again by iconic performances. While his breakout into the classic “I Wan’Na Be Like You” may seem out of place and jarring for some, it gives the 73-year old another opportunity to show off his impressive pipes as a singer.
“They’ll ruin him. They’ll make a man out of him.”
Baloo’s plee to Bagheera remains intact in this updated cut of Rudyard Kipling’s source material and its impact is as important today as it was when the 1967 film was originally released. All the fun and festivity is not without warning. While never overbearing, the film’s environmentalist message is spirited throughout and the charms of the jungle are given even greater value, when you reflect on the ravaging and catastrophic impact we’ve had on nature.
This is a charming offering from writer Justin Marks and director Favreau that is almost completely devoid of physical human beings, yet somehow, feels as human and warm blooded as even the most naturalistic of dramas.
The Jungle Book is a real treat. Highly recommended.