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Nobody noticed it, but over the last two years, director Jon Favreau built a jungle in Downtown Los Angeles. It’s a lush, beautiful and expansive space of flora and fauna that completely sucks you into its world in the same way Rudyard Kipling’s work has done since the late 19th century. Of course, what’s special about Favreau’s live jungle is that it was almost entirely created with computers, making his adaptation of The Jungle Book a true big-screen spectacle to behold – albeit while telling a very familiar story.
If you’ve seen Disney’s great animated movie from 1967, you know what the story is here – though this live-action version of the classic tale has a splash of The Lion King thrown in for good dramatic measure. It follows Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young boy/Man-cub who has lived in the jungle for as long as he can remember – raised by a pack of wolves led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o). While Mowgli is certainly seen as a strange presence amongst the other animals in the community, he is largely accepted… that is, until the scarred tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) arrives back on the scene.
Having permanently damaged an eye in an encounter with a human, Shere Khan’s desire is to kill Mowgli, though he can’t because of a peace agreement among the animals in times of a drought. This leaves the young boy with an opportunity to escape, and Bagheera (Sir Ben Kingsley) – the Black Panther who initially rescued Mowgli and brought him to the wolf pack – agrees to shepherd his journey to the man village. Of course, a trip through the jungle is fraught with all kinds of perils and adventures, from tussles with the entrancing snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), to lessons in relaxation with the honey-loving bear Baloo (Bill Murray), to deal-making with the enormous Gigantopithecus King Louie (Christopher Walken).
If movie-goers with no background knowledge about the film were told that all of the animals in The Jungle Book are real, I believe a surprising number of them would believe it – even though the complete opposite is true. The movie is a benchmark in the world of CGI, and further proof that we have truly entered a new generation of technological filmmaking. Impressive as Avatar was, Favreau’s blockbuster had the challenge of creating creatures we all know and are familiar with, and the results are absolutely stunning. Some characters look better than others, with the intimidating King Louie being at the top of the chart, and Baloo being closer to the bottom. But it’s a weighted scale because it’s all really jaw-dropping.
The third live-action adaptation of a Disney animated classic that we’ve seen in the last three years - following Maleficent and Cinderella - The Jungle Book is the first to implement the musical element that made the hand-drawn versions shine, but it comes with the drawback of the film seemingly not willing to entirely commit to actually being a musical. There certainly would have been riots in the streets had the film not included its own version of “The Bear Necessities,” which admittedly is part of the best sequence in the movie, but it’s the only sing-song bit in the feature other than King Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You” – which is fantastic, but also feels a bit awkward because the number doesn’t come up organically (unlike “The Bear Necessities”), and prior to it’s arrival in the story, there is never the atmosphere that characters may suddenly break out into song. Admittedly the animated version of The Jungle Book doesn’t have quite the notable track list of titles like Beauty And The Beast or Aladdin, but that should have just opened the door for extra creativity. (Perhaps implementation of the hypnotic Scarlett Johansson-crooned track that plays over the end credits?)
Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is a cinematic wonder that deserves to be seen in a movie theater, but like Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, it possesses the same problem: we’ve already seen this story before. There are some extra side plots that expand on the narrative presented in the 78-minute animated version (this one clocks in at 105 minutes), and there is some deeper analysis of Mowgli’s pull between the worlds of man and the jungle to be appreciated, but ultimately it doesn’t have any surprises for an audience that grew up on the Disney classic and either know it beat-for-beat or just have vague recollections of how it all plays out. With new movies based on Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, Mulan and more coming out in coming years, I find myself wondering if there will be a pattern of “more of the same” (while obviously hoping against it).
The Jungle Book isn’t a film that could have been made before now, as the sight of a poorly rendered panther and bear talking would have taken audiences completely out of the movie. But Jon Favreau’s work never has that problem. It is shot beautifully, and with a fantastic sense of wonder within the world being created, which translates to big screen magic – even while you find yourself fully aware of what’s coming in the next scene.