If you had doubts of Jon Favreau’s directorial capability post-Iron Man 2, or are not a fan of Disney remaking their animated films in live-action, you can put those doubts and dislikes to eternal rest — the new adaptation of The Jungle Book is one of the finest films of this young year, and it would truly make Walt Disney and Rudyard Kipling proud. You may think you know this story already, but rest assured, there are numerous differences about, most of which shall remain unspoiled in this review.
Firstly, Favreau’s Jungle Book is one of the most gorgeous films I’ve seen so far this year. Almost entirely computer-animated, this film shines with the brightest polish I’ve seen. It begs to be experienced on the largest screen near you, preferably in 3D. Further, the 3D conversion for this film is luscious; the gap between films shot in the format versus those converted has truly been bridged — I will be buying the Blu-ray 3D edition if it is made available.
All the major actors in the picture shine — Neel Sethi is a talent unlike any other, and his portrayal of Mowgli radiates with charm and bravery. I guarantee you that the film industry hasn’t seen this good of a child actor since Freddie Highmore in Finding Neverland! As for the voice actors, Bill Murray (Groundhog Day) brings the requisite warmth and brightness to Baloo, while the stern schoolmaster teachings of Bagheera are well-controlled by Ben Kingsley (Ghandi). Somewhat underutilized are Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation) as Shere Khan and Scarlett Johansson (Avengers: Age of Ultron) as Kaa — Elba has the glorious position of being the film’s central antagonist,and he’s marvelously controlled in a role most would be twirling their mustaches in, yet I somehow wonder if he couldn’t have twirled a little bit — sometimes, he sounds a tad disinterested. Johansson makes a great Kaa — there were times I reeled back in my seat for fear of being eaten — but is only in one scene and, unlike the 1967 original, does not have a second appearance. Still, what time she has is terrifyingly grand. However, it’s Christopher Walken (Sleepy Hollow) who truly shines as the fire-desiring King Louie. Try to imagine less Louis Prima and more Idi Amin by way of Atlantic City, and you’ll be as frightened as I was!
Finally, the screenplay, written by Justin Marks, is golden. While allusions to the previous film were inevitable (i.e.: Baloo and King Louie singing their signature songs), the additional material seen here, both from Kipling’s books and those written specifically for this film, craft a new narrative that, I daresay, blows the original Disney take out of the water, and it is equally thanks to Marks as it is to Favreau that we have this lovingly-crafted box-office success — if this is Justin Marks’ apology for having written Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, then he’s forgiven a thousandfold in my eyes!
Truly, the 1967 adaptation of The Jungle Book is not among my favorites, but within the first half hour of this year’s adaptation, I was in tears, which is something that cannot also be said of Stephen Sommers’ 1994 version (which owes more to Edgar Rice Burroughs than Rudyard Kipling). If you go to see this brilliant new take on an enduring classic, you will leave the theater cheering!