Jon Favreau has become something of a Hollywood It Man (again) with recent films including the Iron Man movies and 2014’s raw Chef. With Disney’s new release The Jungle Book, he will undoubtedly add another hit to this list. In this latest directorial effort, Favreau brings us the familiar story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young boy orphaned in the jungle as just a baby, saved from the savagery of the elements by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), a panther with his best interests at heart. Mowgli spends his childhood living comfortably as just another pup in a wolf pack, being taught the code of the pack and the essentials of survival.
One of these lessons is co-existing all manner of species, everything from alligators to peacocks to water buffalo. This “man cub” is surprisingly successful at this comingling, with the exception of a particularly nasty Bengal tiger, the intimidating Shere Khan (voiced by a perfect Idris Elba, whom I love, even when his character is this evil). Despite the passing of several years, Shere Khan harbors a deep grudge against our young protagonist, and goes to great and sad lengths to even a perceived score. Ultimately, Mowgli must leave his pack and all that he knows.
In the adventures that follow, Mowgli encounters a menagerie of new friends and foes as he makes his way through uncharted (figurative and literal) terrain. This allows Disney to surprise us with an array of celebrity voices, everyone from Bill Murray as the bumbling bear Baloo to Scarlett Johansson as a sinister reptile. All of the voices are well done here, but it’s Bill Murray and Christopher Walken – as King Louie, a power-hungry orangutan – who really shine. Baloo’s character almost seems made for Murray, pairing his lackadaisical attitude with an inexorable charm. He gets all of the laughs of the film and he deserves them.
But the true star of this version is the lush, deeply-hued animation. When Mowgli glides through thick jungle canopy, we can almost feel the humidity hanging on our skin. When he and Baloo playfully splash each other in the river, or when he runs his hands through his wolf mother’s fur, there’s no need to suspend disbelief. It’s as if they are together, that the entire film’s scenery is indeed that lush and dramatic, that flames lapping at tree branches might burn. While in hindsight you recognize these all as computer-generated images, you won’t think a thing of it in the moment. It’s all that vivid.
Which is also why younger children will find this a scary film to watch, particularly in IMAX 3D (as we viewed it). The speed with which the dark action unfurls does not lend itself to such grand projection; it was almost as if our eyes had trouble keeping pace. The callous and intimidating Shere Khan would be so on a flat screen TV – now imagine him being 50 feet tall. At times, it was just too intense.
But if you’ve a soft spot for the epic and the nostalgic, and dark, scary scenes don’t rattle you, you will appreciate this film and the rich world Favreau has created. Enjoy the journey.
The Jungle Book opens nationwide April 15, 2016.