by: S. Scott Stanikmas – Senior Staff Writer
Disney has been on a hot streak with producing live-action adaptations of their classic animated features from years gone bye. The House Of Mouse has already proven they can do it with Alice In Wonderland, Maleficent and Cinderella being critical and commercial successes. But how long can Disney keep this up? Won’t they eventually slip up and put one out that doesn’t meet up to the high standards they’ve set?
Well, if their latest offering The Jungle Book is any indication, the studio can chalk another one in the win column as this train shows no signs of slowing down. The newest addition to the live-action family coming to us from screenwriter Justin Marks and director Jon Favreau is a delight to watch and is as visually stunning and gorgeous as it is heartfelt and action-packed.
The tale follows Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi), a “man-cub” who has been raised by the wolves of the jungle when he was found by the panther Bagheera as a baby, abandoned in the jungle. Trying to learn to be like one of the pack it’s evident to most everyone that Mowgli seems to be having a bit of a tough time fitting in as he grows older.
During a dry season, when all the animals gather at one of the few watering holes left during a Water Truce, the villainous tiger Shere Khan learns of the man-cub’s existence amongst the animals of he jungle. Khan wants the human brought to him once the Water Truce is done or there will be pain.
Fearing for his fellow wolves, Mowgli decides to return to the Village of Man and begin life amidst his own kind. But Khan has other ideas. Ambushing Mowgli and Bagheera, Shere Khan separates the two and attempts to kill Mowgli. The child escapes and from there sets about on a wondrous adventure through the jungle, meeting an interesting mix of characters from the lazy but lovable bear Baloo to the giant orangutan “King” Louie.
Screenwriter Justin Marks crafts a masterful tale that is equal parts action-adventure and coming-of-age story. Every encounter felt natural and the lead-ins to introducing the other animal players never felt forced. The only thing I didn’t care for was the shoehorning of the two classic songs into the film. It was most likely a mandate from above to include them but it took me out of the story for a bit. At best you could say that Baloo’s “Bear Necessities” was the most organic as it was at a time when he was teaching Mowgli to relax and enjoy life. But Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You” felt so out of place in the film it was almost like nails on a chalkboard.
Director Jon Favreau and the ample amount of animators deserve all the accolades that they can be given. Every animal felt real – whether it was the litheness in Bagheera’s walk or the lumbering of Baloo or even the graceful gait of the elephants, each creature was rendered so beautifully it was hard to tell at times that you were watching CGI. There were a few points during the 3D presentation where you could tell it was a soundstage and not the actual jungle, but those points were so few and far between (and the story was so engrossing) that you can forgive the animators these minor flaws.
And one of the greatest accomplishments achieved was how the animals talked. Their mouths never moved in a human way, instead working within the natural confines of their bone structure. Each creature speaking seemed as natural as if they were supposed to do it all the time – it was never over exaggerated or cartoonish.
The voice casting was spot on. Bill Murray brought a lackadaisical mirth to the bear Baloo while Ben Kingsley was regal as the black panther Bagheera. Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o as Mowgli’s wolf parents Akela and Raksha (respectively) were both loving and stern. Meanwhile Scarlett Johansson was absolutely hypnotic as the python Kaa. But the standout had to be Idris Elba as Shere Khan, who might be one of the best villains we’ll see on screen this year.
In a time when unnecessary remakes have become the norm, it’s nice to see a studio not resting on their laurels just to turn a quick buck on an already established franchise. The Jungle Book is a wonderful film that will appeal to fans of all ages. Whether you were a fan of the animated classic, the source material from author Rudyard Kipling or are cracking open this particular tome for the first time you won’t be disappointed.