The Jungle Book (1967) is easily one of my favorite animated Disney films. A young boy grows up and has adventures with animal friends to a soundtrack that includes jazzy songs like “I Wanna Be Like You” and “The Bare Necessities”? Yeah, I’m so there. Not to mention, it dodged British imperialism and the homicidal elephant ending from Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 story, so that was nice (though it did still have issues with racial stereotypes). Fortunately, the live-action version keeps the spirit of the 1967 animated classic alive.
Directed by Jon Favreau, this film stars newcomer Neeli Sethi as young Mowgli and features settings and characters that are almost entirely CGI. Normally, I’d say that sounds awful because movies like The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies proved how CGI can be overused to the point of turning an audience off of the action, story, and characters. But this movie…it feels so real. Like scary real, at times. There were several moments where I caught myself getting totally immersed in the setting and forgetting to pay attention to the details of the CGI simply because the CGI work is that good.
I’m already putting The Jungle Book on the list for special effects, production design, and other visual and technical awards for the 2017 awards season because there’s no way it won’t be included.
You can tell Disney put its money to good use because the animals in particular are magical. The way Kaa slithers through the trees and coils around Mowgli. The way Shere Khan’s and Bagheera’s shoulders and haunches shift as they walk, jump, and run. This is clearly the result of animal behavioral study and careful motion capture, and the effect is so wonderful that you never feel as though the animals talking is cheesy. Now, when they start singing, that’s a different story. But cheesy singing is a Disney family film staple.
Speaking of singing, I wasn’t expecting musical numbers from the animated film to make an appearance, but there were two songs (technically three with “Trust in Me” during the credits). “The Bare Necessities” isn’t a full on song-and-dance, which works since it happens more naturally, but “I Wanna Be Like You” is very song-and-dance, which takes away from the realistic aesthetic created for this movie. Yes, the songs are a nice throwback, and they’re good for the family vibe, but were they necessary? I’m not entirely sold.
As for the actors, Neeli Sethi is incredible in his debut. Mature yet childish, determined yet vulnerable, he really sells Mowgli as the man-cub who becomes the protector of the jungle. He also sells the interactions with his CGI counterparts, which can’t be easy when you’re the only physical actor on camera. It helps, too, that he was backed by some seriously good voice actors.
Idris Elba as Shere Khan is the standout, of course. My god, he is terrifying. I remember being scared of Shere Khan in the cartoon, but I have a feeling child me would shit her pants after seeing Elba’s version. The scary burned face thing he has going undoubtedly drives that fear. He just looks like a tiger you don’t want to screw with. But Elba’s voice does the heavy lifting, and that’s where the true unnerving feeling comes from. It just sounds so sinister.
And then there’s Bill Murray as Baloo and Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, who are so awesome in their roles. Do you recall the personalities of Baloo and Bagheera from the animated version? NAILED IT. Disney’s casting is spot on here. With Murray’s goofball indifference and Kingsley’s mentor-like voice of reason, they’re the right fit for the begrudging allies who come together in their love of Mowgli.
Other notable voice actors include Lupita Nyong’o as caring wolf mom Raksha, Giancarlo Esposito as wolf pack alpha Akela, Scarlett Johansson’s sultry and seductive snake Kaa (who is gender-bent), and Christopher Walken’s very Walken-y orangutan King Louie, all of whom lend their own personal touches to this epic adventure.
Seeing how good this version of The Jungle Book is, I wonder what will happen with Warner Bros’ Jungle Book: Origins film directed by motion-capture master Andy Serkis (of LOTR, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) in 2018. The film was already pushed back so it wouldn’t compete with Disney’s version—and we all know how Disney vs. Warner Bros has been going lately. Do you think Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, and Benedict Cumberbatch will still draw interest? Or do you think people will be tired of The Jungle Book at that point?
The Jungle Book: A
Listen to my review of The Jungle Book on “Pat & JT in the Morning” here (at 17:43).
Oh, and if you can find it, check out the 1994 live-action The Jungle Book starring Jason Scott Lee, Lena Headey, Sam Neill, John Cleese, and Cary Elwes. It’s pretty solid, considering it’s about a grown-up Mowgli finding his place between the jungle world he was raised in and the civilized society he’s meant to be part of. It’s rooted a bit more in Kipling’s story, too, so it’s darker. But it does address British occupation in India. And did I mention they used real animals?