Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Welcome to the jungle. We got fun and games.
Disney has been making a killing at the box office since the mid-nineties when someone at the studio had the brilliant idea to turn the company’s beloved and acclaimed animated classics into live-action tentpoles. Despite 101 DALMATIANS making a pretty penny, the studio didn’t invest in the idea again until 2010 when ALICE IN WONDERLAND became a sensation. Since MALEFICENT and CINDERELLA struck gold worldwide, live-action updates to the Disney animated library are here to stay. However, none before have ever touched the near-flawlessness of their newest re-imagining, director Jon Favreau’s THE JUNGLE BOOK. Blending elements from the 1967 Disney film with Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories, Favreau (and screenwriter Justin Marks) have crafted a masterclass in homage without it reeking of nostalgia. Rich, vivid, entrancing and immersive, this is unlike anything you’ve ever seen – even surpassing the original.
“Man cub” Mowgli (played by newcomer Neel Sethi) has been raised by wolves deep in the heart of the jungle for many years. Only now he’s outgrowing jungle life. If that’s not enough, he’s been singled out by rage-driven alpha-male tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) to be killed. Yikes! Mowgli’s bestie, stoic leopard Bagheera (voiced by Sir Ben Kinglsey), arranges for him to leave the dangers of the jungle for the safety of his own kind in a nearby village. Mowgli’s journey is filled with all sorts of strange encounters with creatures that range from a seductive snake (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), to a kind-hearted, hustling bear (voiced to perfection by Bill Murray), to a mob-boss-esque Gigantopithecus (voiced by Christopher Walken). But Shere Khan is stalking his prey, making life unbearably terrifying for the family Mowgli was forced to leave behind.
Calling this a “visual marvel” feels like I’m doing Favreau’s film a disservice. Guaranteed to blow you away, it’s genuinely incredible. Even in an unreal environment, animals and jungle life appear breathtakingly photo-real. Their natural beauty and authentic movements (in their physicality and on their expressive faces), create a fascinating dichotomy: organic creatures in an inorganic world. This isn’t the least bit distracting as any artifice melts away during the opening sweeping chase through the jungle. Best of all, the visual effects team manages to avoid the “uncanny valley.”
Not only does this earn high marks aesthetically, Marks’ script also earns much applause. Returning to Kipling’s source material makes the story engaging, compelling and transfixing. Thematic under and overtones are addressed brilliantly – perhaps much more so than the animated “classic.” I can see it inspiring kids (as well as adults) to pore over Kipling’s timeless tales. Passion for storytelling and a true sense of adventure are injected into the veins of this cinematic lifeforce. There’s a sense of urgency to the peril at hand and a gravitas to the lessons the characters learn.
Locations add another subtle layer in conveying the narrative’s tone; when we first begin, the jungle is sprawling, full of life and possibilities, but also rather menacing: Threats are lurking. Tree limbs can snap. Predators are on the hunt for prey. That’s when grit and visceral thrills (like the pursuit to the ravine and the mudslide) are brought in. What once was Mowgli’s sanctuary experiences a marked change – one caused by Shere Khan’s destructive temper and selfish need for power and control. Color, vibrancy and light-hearted charm are brought in with Baloo – as are much needed comedic relief and his iconic song “Bare Necessities.” Though the Sherman Brothers’ songs remain intact (Johansson sings hers over the end credits), King Louie’s tune, “I Wanna Be Like You,” doesn’t quite fit in as effortlessly, breaking up the fluidity and momentum.
While parents of very young children should be forewarned about the violence and darkness (it’s akin to THE LION KING, which incidentally shares some of this film’s structure), this has a wide range of appeal – an astounding feat given tastes at different ages vary so wildly. This is a must-see masterpiece that honors the legacy of both Kipling and Disney.
THE JUNGLE BOOK opens on April 15.
Photo credit: THE JUNGLE BOOK (Pictured) MOWGLI and BALOO. ©2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.