"If you can't learn to run with the pack one of these days you'll be someone's dinner."
To say that Disney’s latest adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’ is the live action version is somewhat of a loose term. Aside from Neel Sethi playing Mowgli, everything else in this movie is the result of computer animation. At the D23 exhibition John Favreau was there to introduce some footage from the film and during the presentation he reminded everyone that the entire film had been produced in a single sound stage in Los Angeles. From that moment on it was all anyone would be talking about at the convention and after seeing the film myself I can see why.
A young boy named Mowgli (Sethi) is abandoned in the jungle and raised by wolves under the supervision of his guardian, a black panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). But when Mowgli’s life is threatened by the ferocious tiger Shere Kahn (Idris Elba) he is forced to leave the jungle, but along the way he encounters giant snakes (Scarlett Johansson), monkey kings (Christopher Walken) and singing bears (Bill Murray).
The original Disney version of ‘The Jungle Book’ was the beginning of a creative wandering fro the mouse house (on a side note, it's the first film my dad saw in a cinema). There’s a certain fun nature to it and an undeniable charm but in reality it’s a thinly veiled plot just to carry the audience from one musical set piece to another, and the animation itself isn’t quite as stellar as other Disney features from the era. The same cannot be said for Favreau’s version. It is stunning.
The CGI on display here may be some of the most impressive I have ever seen. The effect is completely immersive and utterly breath-taking in every single aspect. From the motion capture work, to the creatures animated from scratch and right down to the animated backdrop, it all blends together to create a display of technical prowess that I think may be the most impressive in cinema history to date.
However, this amazing animation has lent the film some comparisons to James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ which may sound great for a lot of people but not so much for myself. I am of the belief that ‘Avatar’, effects aside, is not only an extremely mediocre film but also one that is already starting to look dated (good thing we’ve got four sequels on the horizon right?). Will ‘The Jungle Book’ follow the same path? In my opinion, no. The reason is that ‘Avatar’ found its appeal purely through its effects without giving any major consideration to its plot or characters. ‘The Jungle Book’ on the other hand, crafts its characters so well that I feel like even if the effects don’t hold up as well in ten years’ time the characters will.
This is not to say the characters are necessarily deep or complex, but they are strongly and distinctly motivated and so brilliantly brought to life by each actor. With such an all-star cast I was slightly worried that I would only be seeing celebrity cameos wrapped in CGI but that is certainly not the case here. It’s actually quite odd because none of the actors are necessarily changing their voice but it matches their character so perfectly both technically and thematically that it just works. Murray, Johansson and Walken all sink into their roles perfectly. Neel Sethi is also terrific as Mowgli, nailing the character right down to the his stance to make it feel like the animation has come to life, which is made all the more remarkable when you remember that he was also just on a sound stage (there are one or two moments in which he falters but I can overlook them). Ben Kingsley is fantastic as Bagheera but the standout may be Idris Elba who brings such a savagery and menacing quality to Shere Kahn.
But the film never goes too far into darkness. There are clear stakes, a sense of threat and conflict to make it engaging but it never loses its sense of charm and wonder. In fact a lot of the film acts as a perfect balancing act, fitting all demographics. There are even moments in which it breaks into song (for new renditions of ‘Bear Necessities’ and ‘I Wan’na be Like You’) they somehow work naturally with the flow of the film. Richard Sherman was even brought in to make some new additions to King Louie’s song, which is sung once by Walken during the film itself then in its entirety in the end credits (has there ever been a better reason to sit through the credits than to hear Christopher Walken singing as a giant Orangutan?).
A technical marvel, but above that ‘The Jungle Book’ is universally entertaining from start to finish.