If you’re concerned about spoilers – even if you’ve seen the original animated film – I would advise not reading any further.
I love storytelling math. There’s a critical bit of it early in Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” — the latest re-imagining of Rudyard Kipling’s work. The villainous tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), returns to a wolf pack that raised a “man cub” named Mowgli (Neel Sethi). He had provided the wolves with an ultimatum: Turn the boy over or die under his claw. The head of the pack, Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), instead sent Mowgli to find safety among men.
Shere Khan doesn’t take kindly to this and tosses Akela off a cliff.
I’m not well versed in Kipling’s original stories. In fact, I’ve never read them. For better or worse, I came to “The Jungle Book” as I imagine most audience members will — familiar with the Disney animated film. Anyone who’s seen Walt Disney’s 1967 classic knows that Akela doesn’t die. In this re-imagining, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks boldly deviate from that text. It’s a smart and welcome change, because — here’s where the storytelling math comes in — it puts you on edge whenever Shere Khan is on screen. There’s a scene later that had me far more nervous than it had any right to — this is still a Disney film, after all — where the tiger plays with wolf pups, each no bigger than one of his paws, while launching thinly veiled threats at their mother.
And there are a lot of savvy alterations from the animated film. Mowgli’s given more agency here. He learns that Shere Khan killed his adoptive wolf father and decides to stop running. He retrieves a torch from a village and goes to face his enemy. In so doing, he accidentally sets the jungle ablaze. Demonstrating that he isn’t necessarily wrong, Shere Khan points out that man and his tricks can’t be trusted. Seeing the devastation, Mowgli casts down his torch, rallying all of the animals against the tiger. The sight of the wolves, and yes, a bear, running head long into a meat grinder is damn stirring.
As envisioned here, Shere Khan is a wonderful villain. I especially loved his introduction. In the midst of a drought, animals have gathered at a watering hole for a truce. The tiger’s arrival is prefigured by a flock of buzzards. Death follows him wherever he goes. As he descends to the water, Favreau frames him such that his back is visible in the foreground while animals cower behind him — a shark fin cutting across the frame. As Shere Khan intones about the scent of a man cub, every syllable of Elba’s vocal performance drips menace.
The cast is aces…mostly. Bill Murray voices Baloo, the bear — some comic relief after intense early stretches. Ben Kingsley, as the panther, Bagheera, brings all the strength and regality you’ve come to expect from him. Scarlett Johansson is the nefarious snake, Kaa, and Christopher Walken fills the role of King Louie. Newcomer Sethi has a lot of charisma, but he does veer into the presentational, talking-to-the-back-row technique that sometimes befalls child actors. Though it’s hard to put much blame at his feet, since he spent the production interacting with green screen and tennis balls.
Which brings me to one of the film’s major selling points — its computer animation. Like “Avatar” and “Life of Pi,” virtually everything you see on screen, with the exception of Sethi, was computer generated. This can be troubling for some viewers, and sure, a few moments in “The Jungle Book” don’t hold up to scrutiny. But by and large, the imagery is stunning. Environments are varied and lush. The animals are expressive and we sense their mass and weight (often one of the first things to go with extensive CGI). In the same way computer graphics for “Jurassic Park” felt like a step forward after “Terminator 2,” “The Jungle Book” is a leap ahead insofar as “live action” productions assembled inside a computer.
Sure, there are problems. I’ve already talked about Sethi. And as much as I enjoy spending time with Bill Murray the bear — he really is perfect — the second act feels a little soft. It lacks the drive and purpose of the first and third acts. It seems like this is where Favreau and team are relying most on groundwork laid by the animated film. Some songs have been carried over, namely “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be like You.” The latter feels most out of place, largely depicted via awkward close-ups of King Louie with Walken singing/speaking the lines.
Still, “The Jungle Book” is a rousing adventure that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen and with the best sound system you can find. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be on the edge of your seat. It will envelop you.
What more do you want from the movies?