Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Idris Elba, Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken
Along with everyone else in the world, when I heard that Jon Favreau was making a live action version of The Jungle Book I was skeptical about it. My fifty-five-year-old mother with whom I saw the film with was doubly skeptical. We had good reason to be skeptical. It was an update on the last movie that Walt Disney personally worked on. Furthermore, the film had the unenviable task of being both recognizable as “Disney’s: The Jungle Book”, while still needing to add something new to the story to not be a retread of the 1967 animated classic. Adding to the already high level of difficulty the story presents, it had a kid who was acting against a green screen for the entire movie, which even experienced actors have trouble doing. With all of these factors stacked against Favreau, the director not only succeeded with making a good movie, he made such a great movie that my mother thanked me for convincing her to go see the movie.
Above all else, the movie is filled with great performance, starting with Neel Sethi as Mowgli. The kid is a revelation. His role is far and away the most important in the movie, and not just because he is the main character. As the only character that isn’t computer generated, he had the job of selling every other character as being real. If for a moment he let up that what was on the screen wasn’t real, the audience is taken out of the movie. Sethi puts on such a performance that the audience never gets taken out of the movie while watching it.
As for the other key performances, they are all great. In particular, Idris Elba’s Shere Khan is so amazing that he gets put on my pantheon of movie villains. To be fair, a large part of the credit goes to Favreau’s team of animators. Every movement the tiger makes is filled with menace. Elba’s voice though, adds a different level of evil to the character. He growls slightly throughout, and the audience believes that Shere Khan means every word that he says. Bill Murray as Baloo is also great. He takes the role seriously, and it’s fun. I have to believe that his scene with King Louie was written specifically for Murray after he was cast as Baloo. It is a perfect Bill Murray scene. Everyone else is universally good.
The storytelling and CGI is top notch. The Jungle Book is ultimately a dark, road trip movie. Favreau plots out the trip perfectly. Each stop on the trip has entertaining set pieces. Some are meant to ratchet up the tension, while others are there to remind the audience that there is supposed to be some humor in it. Not surprisingly, on the light-hearted side the Baloo sequence steals the show. It’s a fun interlude during what is actually a fairly dark film. On the other end of the spectrum, the Kaa scene is genuinely creepy. Throughout all of this, the CGI is so good that the audience never realizes that what is on the screen isn’t real.
The Jungle Book should be nominated for best picture. It is about as perfect of a movie as there is. It’s a family film in the best sense of the word. Kids can enjoy it, but it’s also a movie that adults will love. The adventure is fun, the characters are great, and the CGI is among the best ever. If you have any love for movies, and particularly if you have kids, you owe it to yourself to go see this film.