As a parent whose children have grown to the point of growing out of ‘children’s movies,’ I find it fascinating what a visceral response I have to a request to watch one. It is not as though I unduly suffered cinematically when my kids were young – there were kid’s movies I flat out refused to attend citing poor cinematography or lackluster screenwriting credits, and, contrarily, kid’s movies I adored such as THE INCREDIBLES and MONSTERS INC. Additionally, being the cinephile and critic that I am, in order to satisfy my own selfish viewing needs I allowed my kids to view things that could have easily resulted in a call to child protective services. Even having seen the trailers for Jon Favreau’s new take on the Rudyard Kipling classic THE JUNGLE BOOK, I was hesitant. Also I should add that I have a bad response, much like eating a rotten raw clam, to musicals of any kind. I am now, humbly, eating crow. I’ve eaten crow before and it does not taste like chicken. Rather it has the bitter taste of hubris backing up in your throat and choking you.
I have never seen the Disney animated version of The Jungle Book (1967), and I am grateful, as I cannot imagine, aside from it’s catchy soundtrack, the original version alighting my imagination or enchanting me to remotely the same degree as the new version. I will admit that nostalgia is a powerful force for many people, but know this; Favreau has benefitted greatly from the incredible technological advances in filmmaking which allow his jungle creatures to emote fully, to express without words, and to visually match the extraordinary talents who give them voices, all the while looking utterly alive and real. And it is staggering.
Neel Sethi as Mowgli is endearing. He plays the child-rasied-by-wolves without a hint of maudlin overacting and never do we feel pity for him as he navigates his way through the jungle toward the human city he has no interest in being a part of. Shere Khan the tiger with anger management issues who has it out for Mowgli is voiced by the incredible Idris Elba. His simmering throaty bass is duly threatening, but also seductive in the manner as a charismatic cult leader who convinces his followers to drink the Kool Aid. Mowgli’s guide and protector Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) has the authority and judicious calm of a decorated general. Kaa, the worlds most enormous snake, is Scarlet Johansson who uses her feminine wiles in a fantastically hypnotic and trippy scene which serves to neatly fill in the backstory. Joyful beyond description for both his playful portrayal and the cool-adult-satisfaction-factor is Bill Murray as Baloo the bear, and while potentially incongruous at first yet brilliant in practice, Christopher Walken as King Louie is spectacular. Walken’s Louie also has one of the greatest visual film references I’ve ever seen and I congratulate Favreau for working it in so seamlessly and appropriately – it is absolutely a film buff’s inside joke and a perfect one at that. If anyone can identify it I’ll give them a prize.
Aside from the great voice talent, the CGI mastery and awe, and the authentic talent of young Sethi, we have the story of THE JUNGLE BOOK, which has unwaveringly stood the test of time. Fortunately for me, this version contained only two songs and they work well, fitting into the narrative as naturally as when we sing in the shower or alone in our cars. Rudyard Kipling’s story is one of classic themes made easily digestible through the charm of animals and the innate brutal milieu of the jungle. THE JUNGLE BOOK is about belonging, family, power, commitment and vengeance, and this version has some truly startling moments which could scare young children. There is death, fear and threat, all of which is deftly presented by Favreau and his star cast without any patronizing soft-pedaling. The film is filled with style but also has tremendous substance which transcends the movie going experience. In spite of myself, I can’t wait to see it again.(4.5 / 5)
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Bill Murray, Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlet Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito
Running Time: 100 minutes
THE JUNGLE BOOK Movie Review