CGI sure has come a long way. Disney’s latest live-action adaptation of one of their classic cartoons is a visual feast, as revolutionary a film as James Cameron’s Avatar. It features the most convincing talking animals and most realistic digital environment in history. There is not a single frame of The Jungle Book that the audience does not fully believe, yet virtually the entire thing was created inside a computer. For that reason alone, The Jungle Book is worth seeing in theaters - in 3D and on the biggest screen you can find.
Based on the Rudyard Kipling book and the 1967 Disney cartoon, The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young boy abandoned in the wilderness and raised by wolves. When a dangerous tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba) sets out to kill Mowgli, fearing what he will become when he grows older, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) takes him on a journey through the forest to find a new home.
Director Jon Favreau struggles to determine if this is a dark and gritty version of the classic or if it’s a tribute to the original that recaptures the same light tone. That leads to a jarring tonal inconsistency throughout the movie. For the most part, this remake takes a more mature approach, full of emotionally-moving set pieces and a few sequences of sudden violence that will scare all the kids in the audience and make you question the PG rating. But then before we know it, we’re laughing at the wacky antics of Baloo (Bill Murray) even though there was basically no comedy up until this point. Much like when we first meet King Louie (Christopher Walken), one minute he’s the comic relief singing a silly song, but the next he’s a terrifying monster.
Indeed, The Jungle Book is too often weighed down by a desire to give a tip of the hat to the Disney cartoon. If that movie did not exist, and if this were the first Jungle Book we ever saw, it’s hard to imagine Walken’s musical number taking place. It's so out of nowhere and occurs for no reason other than to please Disney fanatics. Is this a dark reinterpretation of The Jungle Book? Is it merely a live action adaptation of the story with few major updates, i.e. Cinderella (2015)? Favreau usually opts for the former, but he never fully makes up his mind.
The issue of inconsistency extends to the story structure as well. Often The Jungle Book feels less like one movie and more like a series of individual setpieces being told under the same umbrella, which makes sense considering the source material is a collection of short stories. Favreau mostly does a fine job centering the tale around a broader narrative, but at times the pacing suffers because it feels as if the characters are just sort of hanging around rather than working towards one tangible goal.
But those characters are so lovely and the world is so rich that a little hanging around is not unwelcome. For the first 10 minutes of The Jungle Book, we as the audience spend the majority of our time marveling at the special effects and wondering how they were possibly accomplished. After that, something funny happens: we completely forget that any of it is fake, and we simply buy into the reality of this world of talking wolves, singing bears, and a giant snake with the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Even in Avatar, it was always quite apparent that what we were watching was not a real environment, but it’s genuinely shocking that none of The Jungle Book was actually shot in a jungle.
Talking CGI animals in live-action films have always looked ridiculous, but The Jungle Book is able to bring us anthropomorphized creatures without losing a bit of their magnificence and without calling the Scooby-Doo live action movie to mind. Just think of the way most computer-generated talking animals come across like cartoon characters, moving around crazily as no living being does. In The Jungle Book, every one of these animals behaves exactly like their respective species, with the absolute only exception being their mouth moving. It’s stunning how well Favreau pulls it off and how thoroughly convinced we are that wolves can indeed communicate with humans.
Speaking of humans, the cast of The Jungle Book is first-rate. Bill Murray as Baloo was an inspired choice; next to Chewbacca, there is no other movie character who the audience wants so badly to hug. Idris Elbra is magnificently intimidating as Shere Khan, and it’s hard to go wrong with Ben Kingsley as Bagheera. For a first time actor, Neel Sethi does an okay job, though at times he struggles to truly connect with the fictional environment.
The ending is perhaps The Jungle Book’s most significant contribution. In the original, Mowgli suddenly abandons his friends forever without even saying goodbye because of a crush he forms on some random girl. Lame. Jon Favreau’s ending is much more thematically interesting, and it doesn’t hurt that it leaves plenty of room for The Jungle Book 2, which Disney already has in production.
All in all, The Jungle Book has its problems, the most glaring being the inconsistent tone. One minute, Favreau is telling a highly serious tale about life in the jungle, and the next we’re in a wacky Disney adventure with seemingly no transition. But even though those two aspects of the film aren’t blended together very well, they are each so enjoyable that the issue is easy to overlook. This is a magnificent slice of Disney magic, and one of the most beautiful films in the studio’s history. After the knockouts of Cinderella and The Jungle Book, it’s safe to say Disney knows exactly what they’re doing with these live-action adaptations. Bring on Beauty and the Beast.