Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book may be a remake of the 1967 animated feature, but it completely stands alone. This is a film that pays tribute to the Rudyard Kipling book while impressing contemporary viewers with breathtaking visuals and a strong cast combined with Favreau’s strong direction and Justin Marks’ methodical script bringing this wonderful tale to life.
The story opens with the youthful Mowgli (Neel Sethi) being chased through the woods. It’s in this impressive sequence that Favreau hints at the enormity of the world he’s created. When the animals appear onscreen and start speaking, the strong effects team shows off their work in a subtle but powerful way. There’s no cuteness to the way these characters talk and there’s no strange effects involved.
Because of the nuance and the visual acuity of special effects, the drama quickly overcomes any hesitation the viewer may have about talking animals.
After a few brief scenes, the director welcomes us into the heart of his vision in a scene where dozens of different species of animal come to a small lake to drink together. It’s here where Favreau first creates a true sense of wonder and majesty. Similar to the first shot of the roaming dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, this scene magically shows the power and wonder of these creatures onscreen and welcomes the audience into an incredible visual landscape.
The main thrust of the story is established in this sequence as well. After being raised by a den of wolves, Mowgli — a man cub who doesn’t realize how different he is from the young wolves he’s grown up alongside — is threatened by the monstrous tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba). Bearing a mysterious scar on the right side of his face, Shere Khan thirsts for vengeance against this young boy. Knowing that Mowgli in trouble, the wolves discuss his fate and — at Mowgli’s insistence — decide to return him to the man village.
Thus begins Mowgli’s journey.
During his trip, Mowgli befriends a bear named Balo (voiced by Bill Murray), gets captured by a giant ape named King Louie (Christopher Walken) and is threatened by a sinister snake named Kaa (Scarlett Johansson). In other words, the classic characters are back and with this stellar cast of actors voicing them, they are given new life.
Murray’s dry sense of humor perfectly fits his character and his great one-liners offer a few of the film’s notable laughs (“You’ve never been a more endangered species as you are at this moment,” he says to an annoying critic.) It’s hard not to become enamored when both Murray and Walken — another perfectly-cast performer— are given noteworthy singing parts that bring some of the classic songs back to life. In fact, most of the stellar voice cast gets an incredible chance to shine here including the late Garry Shandling, who voices a colorful porcupine.
As the only main actor who appears in person, Sethi also does a strong job as the kind Mowgli. It’s hard not to appreciate this young actor’s range. In his role, he’s tasked with creating a powerful emotional connection to the special effects-crafted creatures and he pulls it off nicely. Such emotional weight is conveyed in a scene where Mowgli has to bid adieu to the mother who raised him and in another sequence where his heart gets broken by Balo.
“We’re buddies, aren’t we?” he asks and despite the fact that he’s speaking to a talking bear, the audience immediately understands this connection and the impact this conversation is having on this young hero.
Although The Jungle Book is a Disney film, it should be noted that there are a few violent sequences here (including animals fighting one another). Parents should be aware of such dark sequences but overall, this is a tremendous film that — alongside the original — will undoubtedly be enjoyed by countless families in the years to come.