The Jungle Book (2016) Review

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News that Disney had green-lit a live-action Jungle Book remake was met with disdain in 2013. Of course most major Hollywood announcements are met with disdain, but this struck a particular nerve given the classic status of both Rudyard Kipling’s book and Disney’s 1967 cartoon.

Clearly, from the perspective of the studio, the announcement had a lot to do with Ang Lee’s stunning Oscar-winner Life of Pi, and one of its stars — a photo-realistic, computer animated tiger. Technology is now at the level that makes a live action Jungle Book possible without several actors, crew and animal wranglers winding up in hospital.

As production neared, Disney slowly announced its cast, and with each addition my confidence in the picture grew. Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Scarlett Johnasson as Kaa, Christopher Walken as King Louie, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera — that’s an ensemble for the ages. Bill Murray as Baloo was the cherry on the icing on the cake, and, to use a dash of hyperbole perhaps, an all-time great piece of casting.

With the thoroughly capable hands of Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Elf) at the helm, everything was shaping up nicely in my view, but many remained sceptical.

Disney’s animation is revered with just cause. It’s iconic, but it’s important to remember that it took some serious liberties with the source material. Favreau’s film looks to both that film and 1894 anthology for inspiration, turning to the former for fun and the latter for a touch of darkness.

As the familiar Disney indent leads us into the jungle, the film starts with a chase sequence starring young Mowgli (debutant Neel Sethi), his wolf-pup kin and Kingsley’s Bagheera. It’s a pulsating start that primes its audience for a great many more thrilling set pieces.

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A lot was asked of 12-year-old Sethi – who for long periods is the only ‘real’ thing in the frame – tasked as he was with interacting with a lot of green screen and a cast of non-existent (at the time of filming) characters. In the face of this, the charismatic youngster does great work. He may, on occasion, seem a little lost acting opposite a tennis ball or something from the bag of special effects trickery — but in no way is it ultimately detrimental to the film.

In the final product he’s surrounded by the exceptional computer imagery of Weta Digital (Lord of the Rings, King Kong) and Moving Picture Company (Godzilla, Guardians of the Galaxy). The quality of visual effects isn’t just in the realism of the image, but in how those images are used and framed. Making an animal realistic enough to be believable but also able to talk in perfect English without breaking that illusion is an incredible task, and the effects teams here balance those dilemmas wonderfully. Next year’s race for the Visual Effects Oscar is already as good as over.

There are a handful of occasions when I felt a slight disconnect between the voice work and animation, but it’s only ever briefly jarring and forgivable given how well the animal performances work overall – as a collaborative effort from both the animators and actors.

Elba is great as the villain of the piece. He utilises his native London accent well to differentiate his performance from that of George Sanders in the Disney film, while but retains the same scene-stealing menace. He is however, a little under-used.

Walken proves that playing King Louie as a New York mob boss works far better than you’d ever imagine, and Lupita Nyong’o brings pathos to her mother wolf role. They give the film life, but what gives the film heart and soul are Sethi and Murray.

Murray makes for the perfect Baloo we all easily imagined. Laid back, lazy and effortlessly charming, in a way Bill Murray is just playing Bill Murray, but it’s so befitting and entertaining it doesn’t matter. It is far from the most taxing role of the veteran actor’s career, but that’s only because the man is so suited to the part.

Ben Kingsley in comparison sadly seems to be phoning it in. He conveys Bagheera’s seriousness and responsible manner perfectly well, but never quite sells the love for Mowgli that casts him as the man-cub’s guardian.

Packed to the nines with gorgeous visuals and quaint charm (particularly the Creature Comforts-style dialogue between minor characters), The Jungle Book succeeds against the odds in setting itself apart from a true classic. It borrows a couple of the iconic songs from that classic, but only one works. Bare Necessities fits in organically and is as delightful as the film is wholesale, but I Wanna Be Like You feels forced; arriving at a moment that breaks the palpable tension and threat Walken creates with his performance.

The ending is left a little too vague to be truly satisfying, and forgoes an important part of the story’s presumed conclusion — possibly for the sake of sequels — but The Jungle Book’s successes far outweigh its failures. Far more than a technical marvel, Favreau’s adventure is close to being a classic in its own right.

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