To call this new The Jungle Book from Disney “live-action” would be a misnomer. Sure, the movie comes as part of the studio’s line of live-action modern remakes and sequels that includes Cinderella and Malificent so far, but very little of this retelling of Mowgli’s jungle tale is actually real life. Most of it was made with extreme amounts of green screen and the occasional rock or prop for Neel Sethi‘s Mowgli to make use of. Unlike most films drenched in CGI, however, acknowledging that this is mostly 3D effects actually makes the viewing experience better because, despite being a totally computer generated jungle, The Jungle Book will have you doubting your eyes and ears that what you’re seeing isn’t actually from an on-location shoot in an Indian rainforest.
This new interpretation of the children’s classic, itself a merger of both the Disney animation and Rudyard Kipling‘s original work, is one that places a lot of emphasis on the balance between old and new. Still a children’s story at heart, there’s a loving kinship between portraying the more stoic imagery of the age old source material and the carefree nature of the much loved cartoon. The basic plot remains unchanged – Mowgli is a human child, a “mancub”, raised by wolves in the jungle who decides to leave after Shere Khan (Idris Elba) threatens the safety of their animal collective if Mowgli isn’t handed over to him. What is changed is how much of the imagery is drawn directly from the 1984 collection of stories by Kipling.
Director Jon Favreau opts for a more documentary-like perspective for many of the establishing and group shots, something that not only helps capture the majesty of the various animals, but also highlights just how good the effects in this film are. Seeing the kingdom come together for a “water truce” to drink is wondrous on the big screen, as is a stunning sequence deifying the elephants, the most worshipped and lauded of the animals. The images haven’t been made just to tell a story, they’re also to transport you into the jungle to keenly follow from an intimate distance.
Not to say that the delivery is all more deadpan; it’s quite the opposite. The second act when Mowgli finds beloved beard Baloo, voiced by Bill Murray in one of the most perfect castings in recent years, begins to re-introduce some of the musical numbers from the 1967 animated iteration. ‘The Bare Necessities’ naturally gets an airing, as does ‘Trust In Me’ with Scarlett Johansson‘s Kaa and ‘I Wan’na Be Like You’, which is given a creepy facelift thanks to Christopher Walken‘s King Louie. Each of these renditions is delivered less as a straight musical number and more as a transient, self-aware soundtrack. This movie isn’t a musical, but that doesn’t mean these songs can’t function in their relative plot-points all the same, and they’re done just enough so that it doesn’t feel like a cheap ploy to tug on our nostalgic heart-strings.
As charming as film is, however, there are some pacing issues with how the classic Jungle Book is mixed with wanting to adapt straight from the original stories. Baloo’s playfulness offsets the picture into a more light-hearted affair very quickly, and the transition back into more stoic territory for the final act is also a touch sudden. Strangely, it’s Neel Sethi‘s performance who carries the movie through these transition with his performance. Helped in no small portion by Mowgli being written with a healthy dose of cockiness, Sethi is solid through-out, carrying the audience from beginning to end. No small feat when you consider he’s both a child actor and this is his first major movie.
It feels strange to consider a motion-picture being marketed as bringing “the adventure to life” may be the best animated movie of the year, but it feels just as strange to consider The Jungle Book as anything else. As unlikely as it may seem, the film is one of the finest animations of the year, and is likely to remain so for the rest of 2016. It’s also one of the few special-effects laden blockbusters that can be adequately described as a theatrical experience – see on the biggest screen possible, buy some popcorn and bring a friend to discuss the wonder with afterwards. Pure cinema.