Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is one of the most beloved of all children’s books, and it’s no surprise that Disney – which made the classic animated version in 1967 – would be interested in creating a new live-action version using all the technological tools at its disposal. It also makes sense that the studio would hire Jon Favreau to direct it: his extensive work with visual effects and the warmth and wonder he brings to his best work (Elf, Iron Man, Chef) seems like it would be a natural fit.
And to a large extent, it is. There is a lot to love about Favreau’s The Jungle Book, starting with the movie’s incredible visual effects. As you watch this film that takes place in jungles, on mountaintops and plains, down rushing rivers and high atop trees, it’s simply incredible to think that the whole thing was filmed in a 12-story building in downtown Los Angeles. Every single element of the film, save the young actor Neel Sethi as lead character Mowgli, and the voices of the other actors playing the film’s animals, is digital and stunning. I don’t often advocate to see a film in 3D either, but like Avatar, Prometheus, and a handful of others, The Jungle Book looks just as splendid and even more immersive in stereoscope.
There’s also the genuine warmth that Favreau brings to the material, the characters, and their relationships. A huge fan of the 1967 film, the director clearly loves this world and the beautiful and sometimes frightening creatures that inhabit it. He’s blessed with a terrific voice cast, starting with Ben Kingsley as the noble black panther Bagheera, Lupita Nyong’o as the wolf mother Raksha, Giancarlo Esposito as the wolf leader Akela, Scarlett Johansson as the seductive snake Kaa, and Idris Elba as the terrifying, villainous Shere Khan.
Then of course there’s Bill Murray as the bear Baloo, who gets all the funniest lines and, in the screening I attended, got laughs simply by opening his mouth. But while Sethi can be charming and gives his all, he’s not a strong enough actor yet to create a strong presence as Mowgli and comes off a little too much like a modern kid who has just landed the best play-acting opportunity of his life. It’s far from a fatal flaw, but is nonetheless an occasionally distracting one.
However, it’s in the narrative structure of the movie and its pacing where Favreau runs into most of any trouble he has. The original book was a collection of fables, and Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks attempt to hammer a more cohesive narrative out of the various tales. But the film never really gathers any momentum. It’s episodic, and some exciting set-pieces are followed by long periods where the story seems to stall out. That’s not a problem isolated to this film: Favreau’s last three outings – the woeful Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens, along with the much better but still a bit shaggy Chef – were not edited nearly as tightly as they could have been.
The tale’s opening scenes follows Mowgli, the abandoned human boy adopted by Raksha and integrated into the wolf pack, as he is going through his training as a wolf and learning not to rely on human behavior. While a “water truce” keeps the peace amongst the various animal species, the sinister Shere Khan distrusts Mowgli – he’s a human, after all – and wants to devour the boy, leading to a standoff between Shere Khan and Akela. But soon an all-out attack by the tiger forces Mowgli to flee and get lost in the wilderness where he is eventually befriended by the laid-back Baloo. Their friendship fills out much of the movie’s middle section, leading to the frenetic and considerably darker third act.
It’s in that third act that Baloo, Bagheera, and Mowgli meet Louie, the gigantopithecus (giant ape) living in an abandoned temple with an army of other primates and voiced by Christopher Walken. Louie is a strange and even grotesque creation (he was just a plain old orangutan in the book), and the fact that he sings one of the songs carried over from the animated film, “I Wan’na Be Like You,” doesn’t change his weird nature. The encounter with him leads almost directly into the climactic confrontation between Shere Khan and Mowgli, and the ramping up of the film’s intensity during these sequences is a bit jarring and might prove a bit too much to handle for the younger audience members at whom this is ostensibly aimed.
The inclusion of the songs (Murray also warbles “The Bare Necessities”) is somewhat of a strange move, considering this is not a musical. They represent odd moments in a film that also lacks a strong thematic through-line to tie it all together. There are some words about the strength of the wolfpack and all the different species living together in harmony, but it’s not developed enough to deliver the emotional payoff that Favreau clearly wants.
And yet despite its flaws, The Jungle Book is still a movie to see and relish on the big screen. The director gets so much right and creates such an amazingly detailed and fully-fleshed out world that you cannot help but get drawn into it. Even when the movie loses steam, it always picks up again, and if not there’s always the remarkable visuals to watch and the voices of the cast to pleasure your ears with. Fans of the 1967 version of Kipling’s classic might remain partial to that film, but this Jungle Book has enough going for it that a new generation will absorb it cover to cover.
The Jungle Book is in theaters next Friday (April 15).