The Jungle Book is a reminder that the jungle, no matter how beautiful it may look, is still filled with danger everywhere. In this jungle lives Mowgil (Neel Sethi), a man-cub who has known nothing but the jungle since being found as a very young boy by the black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). He’s been raised as a wolf by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), and learns the ways of the wolves despite having obvious shortcomings.
Not everyone approves of a man-cub living among animals. The Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) makes no reservations about ridding his jungle of man, and threatens the other jungle animals by stating if Mowgil does not leave, their cozy way of life will cease to exist. With the threat fully realized, Mowgil leaves, and undertakes a journey of survival and self-realization.
Can style trump substance? Absolutely. And when a movie has as much style as The Jungle Book, a few slip-ups can be forgiven. For what director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Elf) and all others from production to art direction to animation are able to accomplish as a collective whole is nothing short of extraordinary. Yours truly is actually kicking himself for not forking over the extra cash in 3D, as I’m betting it would probably be the closest thing to a pop-up book in a long, long time.
Some substance does exist in The Jungle Book. But even for a guy like myself who has shockingly never seen any of the previous adaptations until now, and was out of the know as to what the Red Flower was immediately, it is quite easy to see that this is a coming-of-age story mixed with the fish-out-of-water (but not really) template. The story terrain is certainly well-worn, and generally easy to predict. That does not mean it isn’t effective. When done well, and not with a ton of weird ideas like say, Max, the coming-of-age genre is like the missionary position: Old but still a crowd-pleaser.
So, the script is functional, but it sure isn’t the draw that makes The Jungle Book an absolute must-see feature in theaters before the theatrical run ends. Said numerous times before this writing, but it deserves being said again: Favreau’s latest feature is a technical marvel, no argue for debate. It’s the little things that add up to making this a stellar production, like the way Shere Kahn breathes while laying on a rock, or how mouths don’t look stitched into the animals, further making one believe that these animals can actually talk. Even the small decision to not have any opening credits as the movie begins is a wise one, further immersing the audience and creating a sense of awe and, in some cases, scares. Hyperbolic? Maybe, but jump scares are on par here with the average horror. Families with extremely young offspring, you’ve been warned.
The marvelous digital work gets all of the buzz as it should, but also assembled is a voice cast of who’s who. One could argue that The Jungle Book really doesn’t need high profile names to voice their many characters, but the presence of them does not detract from the experience; in fact, it is a huge bonus. It is hard to explain, but the animals sounded as how I imagined they would if they were actually real.
Sir Ben Kingsley possesses the regalia that a black panther emits, Idris Elba the cool menace of a tiger, Scarlett Johansson the allure and sneakiness of a snake, and Bill Murray the intelligence befitting of a bear. The only time when the voicework is a little suspect occurs in the few song numbers. Not only is it not all that catchy, the tunes come about during times in the plot that just feel out of place tonally. As far as the only thing “real” in this film, youngster Neel Sethi does pretty good, all things considered and noting that he was basically interacting with air. Are there better kid performances? Without a doubt, but, he doesn’t take the viewer out of the experience, either.
Taking the bare necessities and putting them in a beautifully realized CGI environment, The Jungle Book appears to be the remake that honors the original yet presents it for a new age. Welcome to the jungle.
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