THE JUNGLE BOOK Review: Stunning Spectacle

The danger and peril of Rudyard Kipling’s novels are combined with the iconic story from Disney’s 1967 animated version to created a vivid hybrid vision of The Jungle Book – one that was filmed entirely on sound stages in downtown L.A. Combining truly stunning cinematic wizardry with a cast of well-known voice actors, the 2016 Jungle Book draws motivation from a variety of sources and makes a strong case for thoughtful remakes, despite much of its charm being borrowed.

It also acts as a re-coronation of sorts for director Jon Favreau. Having ushered in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the charming Iron Man in 2008, Favreau stumbled a bit with his next two would-be blockbusters.  Following the tepid response to Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens, Favreau retreated to the type of personal, small-scale film making that first brought him success (with Swingers) by making Chef, an ode to spurning big-money paydays in favour of following your artistic music.

It’s ironic then that his return to large-scale movies is an effects-heavy $175 million picture for Disney, the overlords of all that you love and hold dear (owners of: Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, the mortgage on your house probably). Regardless, his version of The Jungle Book is a triumph in nearly every way, especially in its technical prowess that demands to be experienced on the big screen.

The story is well-known: Mowgli (Neel Sethi, the only live-action actor in the film) is a young Indian boy who’s been abandoned in the jungle. Discovered by the regal and benevolent panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and subsequently raised by a pack of wolves, he’s dubbed “man-cub” by most jungle denizens. Mowgli’s idyllic life is put in danger when the fierce human-hating tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) returns to his old stomping grounds with a hunger for man flesh. The boy later parties with a carefree bear named Baloo (Bill Murray) and together they relish in a stripped-down life philosophy that would make Jeff Lebowski proud.

The opening fake-out chase finds Mowgli seemingly running from wolves only to reveal that he’s trying to be part of their pack. It quickly introduces a central idea of the movie – Mowgli is both trying desperately to fit in with his adoptive animal family while still finding a way to be human. Can the two warring sides co-exist, especially as many other animals see mankind as a grave threat?

It’s clear from the start that Favreau’s version of the Indian jungle is more dangerous and action-packed than prior incarnations. The movie is built on a number of impressive and dynamic action sequences as opposed to the more frequent musical numbers from the animated version, though the best songs still find their way into this movie. Loosely following the structure of the cartoon, the danger-prone Mowgli not only comes face-to-face with the smoothly sinister Shere Khan, but the gigantic python Kaa (spouting exposition through Scarlett Johansson’s voice) and the even more imposing King Louie (Christopher Walken), an orangutan who’s been re-imagined here as Colonel Kurtz-esque monster ape that commands a mighty monkey army from deep within ancient jungle ruins.

The King Louie scenes are a marvel, combining the elemental terror of giant jungle creatures with the jaunty jazz-inflected song “I Wan’na Be Like You”. Walken’s halting speech patterns and moody Apocalypse Now-like surroundings make for a weirdly alluring and frightening vision, especially as the hulking Gigantopithecus ape goes wild after Mowgli refuses to reveal the secrets of the “red flower” (a.k.a. fire, which only humans command but many animals both fear and covet). Heck, Mowgli even stumbles on a cowbell in King Louie’s lair, a winking meta-joke for Walken/SNL fans.

That kind of humour that plays well to the adult crowd while going over the heads of kids is rare, as The Jungle Book is more of a straight ahead adventure than a four-quadrant pleaser like the best Pixar has to offer. Mowgli himself is an audience identification character, as the movie’s aimed at kids of his age and full of slapstick-y comedy, a fact that’s put into sharp relief with the near constant and terrifying peril that Mowgli finds himself in. I do like that element of danger though and even if it’s not nearly as subversive or weird as some of the touchstones of my childhood (Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, I’m looking at you), I can see lots of young kids today being equally enthralled and scared by the immersive world of 2016’s The Jungle Book.

And what a world it is. The movie’s biggest selling point (beyond the mercenary leveraging of nostalgia that Disney excels at) is its wildly successful realization of a living, breathing jungle. When Bill Murray’s voice comes out of a photo-realistic bear or when Mowgli sees visions of his past in Kaa’s hypnotic eyes, there’s not a moment when it isn’t believable. From the notched bark on the trees to fur being rustled by the wind, this is a movie where every ounce of artistry and work that went into it is on screen for the audience to see. Even the inclusion of 3D – often disappointingly employed, like in the recent Batman v Superman that forgot about it after the first 15 minutes – is used to stunning, wowing effect here, creating depth (you will understand Baloo’s fear of heights) and immersion (mud spackling the camera, fire and smoke swirling) the likes of which haven’t been seen since Avatar (which, hate it or not, ushered in the modern 3D era).

And like Avatar, The Jungle Book won’t play nearly as well on a small screen and is a stirring rebuttal to theatre detractors. Both movies also share the distinction of wearing their obvious influences on their sleeves. This is a movie made for a huge canvas by a director working at the height of his powers (along with hundreds of other artists) and even if the plot is familiar (featuring a different ending that sets up the movie for its inevitable sequel), the jaw-dropping spectacle and awe of The Jungle Book deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

The Jungle Book (2016)

Directed by Jon Favreau

Runtime: 105 minutes

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