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