From the first sequence, where a young boy dashes terrified through an Indian jungle pursued by … what is it? what kind of creature? … you are in the thrall of the kind of movie magic Disney once sprung on families — the thrill of unimaginable adventures with talking animals and a brave young boy and a world of mystery and jeopardy and struggle and growing up.
Somehow, perhaps miraculously given how Hollywood filmmakers prostitute CGI for unfathomable grotesqueries, a team of filmmaker headed by Jon Favreau, who stumbled a bit following his own scintillating debut in CGI, “Iron Man” (2008), has pulled together a movie that combines the magic of the early Disney — meaning the man, not the corporate empire — with state-of-the-art filmmaking and storytelling that places a premium on emotions, sentiment and fun.
The original “Jungle Book” (1967) was actually Walt Disney’s last animated feature. He died a few months prior to its release. One could carp that he had lightened and, yes, “Disneyfied” Rudyard Kipling’s somewhat darker literary works, as he did European fairy tales for years.
But the modern-day filmmakers had the good sense to realize that Disney was making films for families, not Bloomsbury. So they stick with the Disney version yet instill not only a modern sensibility but seamless artistry into the proceedings.
Watching this film you sense its literary and cinematic history, of Kiplings’ collection of fables first published in magazines in 1893–94, possibly for his daughter Josephine; of the Korda brothers’ 1942 Hollywood backlot life-action adaptation of the stories with the young Indian actor Sabu; of Disney’s original animated effort; and of numerous TV shows and stage adaptations as well as an anime series and a Chuck Jones TV cartoon.
But it’s the Disney version that prevails here, geared for enchantment, for spirited comedy and thrills that tickle the eight-year-old in us all. Like Kipling himself, the film uses animals in an anthropomorphic manner to give moral lessons in this coming-of-age-in-the-jungle tale of a young “man-cub,” Mowgli, raised by a family of wolves.
Neel Sethi, a native New Yorker of Indian descent, supposedly won the role over about 2,000 auditioning youngsters, and you can well believe it. The boy has natural instincts for the kind of wide-eyed wonder, superb athleticism, ferocious curiosity and petulant defiance that would keep a man-cub alive in the jungle.
He is the movie’s only human character. His companions are beautifully rendered CG animals, all moving in accordance to the laws of nature yet with just enough body language that inflects a scene with comedy or drama, to let you know that this is a world of fable.
It is also a world of morality. The laws of the jungle are strictly observed, these being rules laid down to preserve the safety of families and communities, all imparted to the boy by head wolf Akela (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), his wolf mother.
Unlike his animal companions, Mowgli has few gifts for survival other than “tricks,” meaning, of course, human ingenuity that allows him to devise various apparatuses to gain an advantage or the ability to think his way out of jams.
Yet danger lurks. When the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) makes clear his intention to destroy the small human in their midst — man being the greatest enemy of jungle inhabitants — Mowgli must make a journey back to human civilization with the help of Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), his black panther/mentor.
On his journey, with Shere Khan dogging his heels the entire way, Mowgli encounters Baloo (Bill Murray), a free-spirited bear; Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), a seductive python; and the huge though musical ape King Louie (Christopher Walken), who rules over a colony of wild monkeys.
His friendship with Baloo grows so strong, albeit one-sided since his “tricks” in securing honey do more for Baloo’s comfort than his own, he begins to rethink whether or not he wants to live in a human village.
The original Disney cartoon was, of course, a musical and Favreau and writer Justin Marks are unwilling not to give a shout-out to their predecessor. So a couple of musical numbers pop up. So photo-realistic are the CG animals that this at first strikes you as odd, as a violation of the film’s carefully established tone.
But the filmmakers were probably right to give a nod back in time. If wolves and bears can talk, they might as well sing. Plus it forms a linkage to Disney as well as Kipling.
The movie paints its jungle and animals with a magnificent combination of CG animation, motion-capture techniques and live-action shooting to create a realistic but not-quite-real environment in which Mowgli can romp. Using a library of 100,000 photos of real Indian jungle locations, the effects artists lay out a lush, believable jungle that become Mowgli’s playground.
Marks’ screenplay performs its own juggling act, incorporating just enough of a modern sensibility to let you know you’re not in Kipling’s late 19th century jungle, nor in Disney late 1960s jungle for that matter. I think this is what gives the film its own special magic, the sense of a timeless tale that stretches back to 1893 yet feels contemporary.
One can endlessly remake Kipling and Dickens and other stories by great writers, but they must be re-imagined for contemporary audiences. “The Jungle Book” does this in ways many of the current CGI-riddled movies do not. It never goes overboard, abstaining from the grandstanding that plagues so many comic-book movies.
“The Jungle Book” feels grounded in its own reality, which it never violates. A few sequences, especially Mowgli’s encounter with the wild monkey kingdom, feel extraneous, lively as they are. Yet they remain consist in tone with the rest of the adventure.
Composer John Debney’s score is a unifying element. It’s a classic orchestral sound punctuated with ethnic instruments that swells with the action but never overwhelms it.
“The Jungle Book” transports one back to childhood games surrounded by a reality that commands awe with every frame. As I say, it’s magic.
Opens: April 15, 2016 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production: A Fairview Entertainment production
Cast: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Garry Shandling, Brighton Rose
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenwriter: Justin Marks
Based on the books by: Rudyard Kipling
Producers: Jon Favreau, Brigham Taylor
Executive producers: Peter Tobyansen, Molly Allen, Karen Gilchrist
Director of photography: Bill Pope
Production designer: Christopher Glass
Music: John Debney
Visual effects supervisors: Robert Legato, Adam ValdezCasting: Sarah Halley Finn
Costume designer: Laura Jean Shannon
Editor: Mark Livolsi
PG rating, 107 minutes