The Jungle Book is remarkable on how different it is from a typical Disney live-action remake of its animated classics. It’s no secret that there’s been a trend lately of Disney “updating” its animated vault, giving the spotlight to supporting characters or by adding a modern twist. Jon Favreau’s film avoids all that and keeps the focus solely on Mowgli.
The best part of this adaptation is when it differentiates itself from the book and the cartoon through a stronger, more urgent sense of plot. Kipling’s book was actually a series of tales rather than a straight-up novel, which can be seen in how the 1967 film looks like a series of vignettes loosely tied together. The latter was more about whimsical slice-of-life fables than anything “epic”. This difference is most evident in Favreau’s characterization of Shere Khan. The cartoon Shere Khan was a simple character; he was a predator who would slip in and out of the narrative to threaten Mowgli, serving as the manifestation of the jungle’s inherent danger. Favreau’s Shere Khan is a sympathetic villain whose pursuit of Mowgli is organically woven into the film’s narrative. The film even makes a thematic twist that Mowgli is a threat to Shere Khan and the denizens of the jungle rather than the other way around.
This well-crafted adventure is made all the more engrossing by its impressive visuals and incredible cast. Weta Workshop delivers once again on motion capture and the animal renderings. Their work here is even more impressive than in The Hobbit trilogy. Jon Favreau and his crew should be commended for creating a lush, vibrant jungle. Neel Sethi is a perfect Mowgli. The child star is at ease in the green-screen. He makes interacting with the motion capture and the almost nothing sets look so fluid, whereas more experienced actors struggle. It helps that the young actor is surrounded by such a talented roster. From the moment they were cast, I knew Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, and Scarlett Johansson were perfect for their roles. Idris Elba lends his deep, commanding voice to the menacing Shere Khan. Ben Kingsley is warm and regal as Bagheera. It should be no surprise that the charming Bill Murray makes for a jolly Baloo. Scarlett Johansson’s entrancing voice makes for a captivating Kaa.
The film is slightly hampered down by a few out-of-place elements though. For example: when it has to pay tribute to the musical portions of the 1967 cartoon. It feels somewhat out-of-place in this version. It doesn’t help that the singing is a little off-key. Another one is Jon Favreau’s signature low-key observation humor. It feels a little jarring at times, since the others speak from a wild animal’s perspective while Baloo and some of his friends sound straight out of a Dreamworks cartoon about animal city slickers.
Jon Favreau made a wise decision by not making this Jungle Book film a shot-per-shot remake of the popular 1967 animated version by Disney. Instead, he drew inspiration and improved upon both the book by Rudyard Kipling and the 1967 film by crafting a grand adventure about a boy at home in the wild majesty of the Indian jungle.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars