Movie Review: The Jungle Book
By Ben Gruchow
April 20, 2016

Now he's going to have to be a wolf pack of one.

If we are to continue down this path - of live-action, mega-budget remakequels of movies from our collective past, assembled and marketed with nostalgic appeal in mind - we would be fortunate to have more of them turn out the way this one does. Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is the third Disney-produced feature adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s collection of short stories, and the best of them - better than the 1994 Stephen Sommers film, and better even than the animated 1967 film, from which this incarnation takes some inspiration. Its characters are more vivid, the conflict and themes clearer and more developed, and it contains in its characters and world the best visual effects of the year thus far, with one character in particular a candidate for the most accomplished digital creation since Peter Jackson’s King Kong.

What's interesting is that it's really not all that much more loyal to the source material than the previous incarnations. Kipling’s text spread out the story of Mowgli, a young Indian boy adopted by a pack of wolves, over several entries. The principal antagonist of these stories was the man-eating Bengal tiger Shere Khan, but his motivations and orientation toward Mowgli changed over the course of the adaptations. Apart from this adversarial plot line, the Jungle Book stories took the form of fables, where the purpose was to learn a moral lesson. The fable lends itself well to mythic proportions, and we see that reflected in the approach here: the jungle is not just big but all-encompassing and seemingly infinite. The predators are gargantuan, photorealistic while barely based in reality.

Here, we open as Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is being raised as a cub within his wolf pack, under the alpha Akela. Teaching him is the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). A drought has parched most of the jungle, and the animals have struck a peace treaty around the sole remaining water hole. It's here that we first meet Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who is none too pleased at the presence of a “man-cub” in the jungle, nor his inability to do anything about it because of the treaty. There is a backstory between the two of them, one that honors the spirit of their relationship in Kipling’s Mowgli’s Brothers if not the actual incident. Regardless of treaty, it's decided that the jungle is no longer safe for Mowgli, and Bagheera is to accompany him back to the human village (when Mowgli first sees this, he's understandably unimpressed; the village, alluded to in respectful terms, is a tiny pinprick of solitary light against the backdrop of endless foliage). During the course of the journey, we meet the expected Book mainstays: Baloo the bear, Kaa the python, King Louie the (pause while I look this up) Gigantopithecus.

It is, then, not very different from the broad strokes of the other films. What sets it apart is the commitment to its world in terms of look and feel, and a clearer sense of stakes and risk. When King Louie holds Mowgli in his court, surrounded by minions, there is a threat posed by the primate that's carried in the eyes and movements and expressions. This requires skill in character psychology and timing, and it's a skill that exists outside of the raw technicalities of photorealistic CGI. Indeed, the movie's computer-generated cast succeeds partially because that realism is married to an unsettling perception of intelligence that (miraculously) doesn't even dent the tactile reality of them as animals - often predators.

King Louie is an impressive creation, but he's overshadowed as we travel upwards in prominence. Bagheera and Baloo (Bill Murray) are true feats of effects engineering: the filmmakers realize that it would not do to contort distinctive feline and ursine features and tics out of whack to serve the story, so they've merely adjusted the habits of the characters to fit the expectations we have of them as a panther and mountain bear. They've executed the same improbable cross-breed with the eyes, always the most important aspect of digital flesh and blood: in their eyes we see deduction and induction matched by predatory instinct. The attention to minute detail here, bred from decades of exacting ethos by Disney animation, has us constantly paying attention whenever they're onscreen; I particularly liked the small detail of Bagheera panting after he and Baloo ascend a steep cliff.

They both pale next to Shere Khan. From his first appearance, the movie’s primary antagonist is a marvelous digital alchemy of feral physical reality and nightmarish abstraction. Nothing exemplifies this better than the manner of his introduction; atop a rock outcropping and backlit so harshly by the sun that we see nothing but a vague sliver of him at any one time, and then in shadow as he makes his way down to the water hole, the CGI is structured and moves in a way that seems to take up the entire screen while being only slightly larger than a standard Bengal tiger. Adding to it is Elba’s superb vocal performance, which mostly operates in a low, languid, coiled register that’s deeply villainous without ever tipping over into camp.

He’s the most flat-out frightening Disney villain since Judge Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Like that character, Khan has the power of righteousness motivating him; he believes that the man-cub is owed to him as a sacrifice, and that his actions are necessary to achieve peace. Even disregarding the fullness of the vocal performance and the character implications, though, just look at what’s onscreen. There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the film, involving Khan and a litter of wolf cubs and Mowgli’s adoptive mother, Raksha (played by Lupita Nyong’o). There is the recitation of a tale about the cuckoo bird, and a moment where a cub is momentarily prevented from returning to its mother, and we forget that we are seeing a screen full of CGI creations; we have fully accepted the entities on screen as living and breathing characters, instead of special effects. How often does that really happen?

The Jungle Book steps wrong in only two areas, both pretty minor. There are a couple of musical interludes, transparently replicated from the 1967 film for their cultural recognition, that are unnecessary to the story and don’t fit well into the rhythm of either set piece in which they appear. The second wrong step involves some questionable casting decisions. Scarlett Johannson has a confident screen presence, and she can certainly sell seduction by voice alone, but something feels off in her scene as Kaa the python. I’m not sure that the Kaa character has a gender, so it’s not like a male vocalist would necessarily have been any better. I think it’s that she doesn’t sound motivated, and the parts of the scene that work do so because the visual of the python does the heavy lifting.

But it’s Baloo that’s the movie’s bigger casting mistake; Murray is arguably a good fit for the character, but his voice is so immediately recognizable, and he’s playing so much to the Bill Murray Type, that his scenes took me out of the film and made me aware - generally for the only time - that I was watching a $175 million tentpole. These are ultimately small flubbings of what is otherwise an expertly orchestrated and rendered adventure movie. This is what can happen when a studio infamous for brand control and consistency crosses paths with a filmmaker who knows how to realize and interpret a world in a clear, honest, intelligent way. Unlike Mowgli, The Jungle Book knows what it is and how to achieve its purpose right from the start, and it’s a pleasure to see a story acquit itself so effortlessly.