The very best Disney films, classic Disney one might say, have the capacity to traumatise its audience (Bambi, Pinnochio, The Lion King). When I saw The Jungle Book my niece Olivia decided that Uncle Blake’s lap was a more suitable perch than the cinema seat. One thing was a certainty as the beautiful credits come to a close; Jon Favreau’s adaptation has the power to scare the farts out of the kids in the audience.
Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a man cub living as a member of the wolf pack, nurtured by mother wolf Rashka (Lupita Nyong’O) and supervised by mentor panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). When a drought brings about a truce, predator and prey alike gather around the jungle’s last watering hole. When tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) arrives he demands that the man cub be surrendered to him to restore the hierarchy in the jungle. Mowgli must journey out of the jungle to the nearest man village, facing friends (Baloo – Bill Murray) and foes (King Louie – Christopher Walken) alike, keen to use his man “tricks” to their advantage.
Jon Favreau follows his sensational and personal Chef refreshed and ready to tackle The Jungle Book. It’s a feat of vision and trust in the visual effects to add texture to the blue screen world, constructed in a Los Angeles sound studio. It’s a film that looks so fantastical that you’re constantly appraising the landscape, the animals and the interaction with our sole live action character in Sethi’s Mowgli. It’s a film that becomes far more technically impressive the further you see behind the scenes.
Favreau’s timing is perfect, his construction of sequences to feel immersive and emphasise the vastness of Kipling’s jungle. Neel Sethi does a terrific job for a first time actor performing in green screen isolation. Favreau is an excellent director of children (Zathura) or the childish (Robert Downey Jr) and it’s his assured support that brings the best out of the unknown Sethi.
Justin Marks’ adaptation of The Jungle Book focuses on re-tooling the famous animation instead of doing an entirely more authentic portrayal of the book. Marks tackles the adaptation with a Mad Max: Fury Road structural simplicity. Mowgli is forced from his home to the ragged edge of his world, faced with a series of challenges in the form of beasts who want to use his man tricks for their own ends. Finally he comes to terms with the poetic certainty that he belongs in the jungle; and must fight to stay. The live action adaptation is ambiguous on the concept of belonging for Mowgli. The original 1968 animation emphasises man’s opposition to nature; which contrasts the optimism of Mowgli’s ability to repress his humanity and coexist in the jungle. In the closing stages of the film the filmmakers have to use a ‘deus ex machine’ to absolve the consequences of Mowgli’s impulsiveness and carelessness in the jungle. It feels like they created the conditions ripe for a quandary for the animals, and then quickly solved it.
Idris Elba’s Shere Khan, apart from his intent to torment with every word, is so damned terrifying as the manipulative tiger. The sound design is sensational as every rough order pours out of the tiger’s mouth as a snarl. Favreau makes some wonderful decisions with the film’s antagonist. He isn’t afraid to show his brutality and malice, and yet he’s never gratuitous in its portrayal. In Khan’s quietly menacing moments (and Elba almost whispers torment) you’re on edge constantly. Sir Ben Kingsley adds a regal power to Mowgli’s mentor Bagheera the panther. Kingsley has a voice that reverberates about 4 decades of great cinematic roles. You want Mowlgi to listen to him. Lupita Nyong’O voices Mowlgi’s wolf-mother Rashka; and you can feel her soul jump out of the digital animation.
The two standouts of the film are most definitely Bill Murray’s Baloo, the gluttonous, leisurely and loveable bear. Their interaction is adorable and their jazzy rendition of ‘Bare Necessities’ that appears organically in the middle of the film will totally warm your heart. The other is King Louis, voiced to gangster perfection by Christopher Walken. Shot shrouded in shadow like Brando in Apocalypse Now to guise his gravity displacing size. The interrogation of Mowgli to get some of the “red flower” (fire) is delivered in such an offbeat cadence that one can’t even imagine it without Walken’s spirit.
Favreau’s adaptation of The Jungle Book weaves the technical into the magical, and when it’s at its best, the frightening.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Written by: Justin Marks (based on the book by Rudyard Kipling)
Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’O, Garry Shandling