I won’t keep you in suspense: I loved this movie. I was looking forward to seeing it for some time, really since I saw the first trailer. I have a weakness for movies that take place in a jungle. Yeah, that sounds weird, I realize that. But I grew up seeing Disney’s animated Jungle Book in the theaters (perhaps for a fifteen year anniversary, maybe?), Romancing the Stone, and the movie with the best jungle opening ever (and maybe the best opening ever, period) Raiders of the Lost Ark. Explorer/adventurer movies suck me in, even when they’re so-so, as in The Mummy.
I had to take my biases and try and put them aside to really get a sense of how well Disney’s newest version of The Jungle Book works. And boy-howdy, does it ever work.
The story takes most of its cues from the animated version, from the characterizations of the animals, to some of the songs (though it’s not really a musical), all the way down to Mowgli’s red loincloth. So much of what is in the move is inspired in some way by the original animated feature that it doesn’t feel like you’re meeting a brand new person, but rather catching up with a childhood friend who has now reached adulthood. The world is larger, the dangers more real, the stakes are higher.
Just like the original, the primary conflict is that Mowgli, an Indian boy orphaned in the jungle as an infant, has been raised by the wolf pack. He’s not as swift or strong as the other wolf cubs, but his “mother”, the wolf Raksha, played by Lupita Nyong’o, raises him as one of her own and is fiercely protective. With good cause. The tiger Shere Khan is anxious to find the small boy, and kill him. For Mowgli is a man cub, and a man cub will eventually grow to be a man. And man brings nothing but death to the jungle whenever he comes. Man’s superiority is because he knows the secret of the “red flower”, which is how the animals of the jungle think of “fire”. It doesn’t matter that Mowgli has been in the jungle all his life, and that he has never learned to make fire. He is man, and man must die. One would think all the animals fell that way about Mowgli, but he is still a cub, even though he man, and though they may fear the tiger, none of them like Shere Kahn. When Shere Kahn calls the wolf pack out for breaking the law of the jungle about man, Raksha calls him out for his own lack of law in that he kills for pleasure, not just for food.
This single conflict propels the action, with heart-stopping chases, flights through the trees, and a climatic fight between Mowgli and Shere Kahn that will leave you panting. All the actors put in fine performances, especially Ben Kingsley as the black panther Bagheera, Bill Murray as Baloo the sloth bear, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, and Christopher Walken, who’s take on King Louie is somewhere between Robert De niro and Marlon Brando, and manages to be pitch perfect as the king of the Bandar-log. But the greatest performance is that of Idris Elba as the homicidal tiger Shere Khan, who turns in a stunning vocal performance. I was reminded of Heath Ledger as the Joker, because whenever Shere Kahn wandered onto the screen, I grew genuinely scared I had no idea what he might do next, only that his next action would scare me.
But perhaps the greatest achievement is how the movie was filmed. If you wait until the credits are over, you’ll see that the last line is”Filmed in downtown L.A.” That’s right, the entire movie was filmed as bluescreen, with all animals and environments added later. It’s a stunning visual experience (the mudslide scene in particular is mind-blowing), and shows what can be done with CGI technology in the hands of a filmmaker who knows how to tell a story. Movies such as the Star Wars prequels were criticized in part for relying too heavily on digital wizardry. But that was not their issue. Their issue was a problem of storytelling. Screenplay author Justin Marks and director Jon Favreau know the fundamentals of storytelling. In their hands, the story is safe, and the medium to tell it doesn’t matter. As such, a nearly completely CGI movie is just a story to be told, and they tell it in a visually beautiful and breathtaking way.