If you ask today’s movie-going audience about the biggest bane of Hollywood today, chances are the answers you get would resound those notorious three letters which religiously populate the screens of every film released since the advent of the blockbuster – CGI. So, it was only natural for people world over, myself included, to let out huge groans at the news that Jon Favreau’s ‘live action’ adaptation of Disney’s The Jungle Book would feature a child actor running around in front of a green screen, where the jungles of India, and the beasts it serves as home to, would be created. But the fact was, Favreau was a man with a plan, and as millions worldwide sat down, presumably with their kids, with the simple hope of hearing Bill Murray sing ‘The Bare Necessities’, they were treated to a computer-animated experience which should only have been possible in the distant future. Favreau’s take on the Disney classic offers up something that, even if you do not care about the original or think these films are solely for children, deserves to be seen on the big screen for the sheer magic of the world it creates.
While I’m certain that no one really needs an introduction to the story of The Jungle Book – having already been adapted from the original novel by Rudyard Kipling into books, movies and extremely 90s cartoons – it would be a shame to not lay it out here, just in case of the very unlikely possibility that this review is someone’s introduction to the tale (bless you). The story, set in the wild landscapes of the Indian jungle, artistically liberated from reality, follows Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a man-cub found by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and brought into the wolf-pack, under the protection of its leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and the maternal care of Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). It is a story of the man-cub’s coming into his own, constantly conflicted between the rules of the jungle, and the Huckleberry Finn attitude of the bear Baloo (Bill Murray), as he is hunted by the maniacal tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba). Strung together by his encounters with various ‘animated’ characters, literally and figuratively, from the seductive Kaa (Scarlett Johannson) to the ambitious King Louie (Christopher Walken), The Jungle Book fluently navigates the wonders of the animal kingdom, and their reaction to man.
Speaking of reaction to man, easily the most impressive element in The Jungle Book is the effortlessness of interaction between the only real person swinging from computer-generated branches, and the rest of the world that the story inhabits. There is something almost too real about the animals and environment in the film, elevating it even beyond what could possibly have been achieved with absolute live action. The Jungle Book is a film that defies all conventions: where the animated seems to add layers to the realism rather than detracting from it, and where, surprisingly, the remake surpasses the original animated classic in the coherence of its story and the emotional undertones beneath. I say ‘surprisingly’ simply because such a successful re-tuning is not commonplace, and not because of the brilliant genius of the original, which in this case does not exist. The 1976 Disney classic in no way represents the studio’s best work, and with its B-grade animation and trailing plot tangents, failed to capture the overarching emotional drama crafted by Kipling. Favreau’s version, however, decisively cleans the classic of everything but the ‘bare necessities’ to tell the tale, and in doing so, gains the investment of the audience in its characters and their struggles. Making a wise choice in reducing the human village act from the 1976 film to a single scene, the film successfully maintains the surreal mood of its jungle environment, rightly keeping the world of man a mystery to the animal kingdom, of which Mowgli is a part.
Perhaps the only sure thing about the film I knew going in, and what lived up to its expectations magnificently, was the excellently cast line-up of voice actors. Truly embodying the personas of their characters with merely their voices, this stellar cast breathes life into the immaculately crafted canvas of rich canopied woods, ancient ruins, sprawling savannas and thrashing rapids, to elevate the film from mere visual feast to compelling character drama. The casting is so spot-on that it would be impossible to imagine these characters speaking in any other voice: from Bill Murray’s lazy, drawling bear to Ben Kingsley’s protective, fatherly panther and from Scarlett Johannson’s spellbinding python to Idris Elba’s truly bloodcurdling turn as the enigmatic Bengal tiger, they simply could not have found a cast more fitting the shoes – rather, paws – of these iconic animals. It would seem that you would need yet another A-list actor to be the audience’s eyes and ears into this world filled with seasoned performances, but newcomer Neel Sethi is more than up to the task of interacting with a million different non-existent elements and characters in front of a green screen. With the exception of a couple of faltering moments, the young actor holds the otherwise completely computer-generated film together, and one can hope that his performance lights a beacon for more diverse casting in films that call for it (Yes, Ghost in the Shell, I’m looking at you).
Another noticeable break from classic Disney here lies in swapping the drawn-out and complete songs for the more natural, slightly off-beat free verse played out in-character by the voice cast, particularly the special Bill Murray rendition of ‘The Bare Necessities’. There is realized here a much more sincere and organic mood, which is sure to hold the attention of even the most cynical of adult viewers, and uphold universality in bringing in a wider audience into its familiar grounds. Jon Favreau has built a reputation, ever since 2003’s Elf and continuing all the way to 2013’s Chef, as a server of delightfully entertaining dishes to help break free from the otherwise deeply thought-provoking and thought-provokingly non-deep fare that Hollywood has to offer, and he continues it with this smashing success of a movie, seemingly for children, but cleverly crafted not to target any specific section of the audience. And while the film does come with inaccuracies in pronunciations (Hindi speakers would understand, when they hear Christopher Walken’s King Louie say ‘Bandar-Log’), it never comes off as discordant with the fantastical tale which Kipling himself took his artistic liberties with. With an exceptionally evocative cast of actors that sounds unbelievable to have come together, and offering a visual experience which, in my opinion, stacks up with Mad Max: Fury Road from last year, Favreau’s film is by far one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve had in a theatre of late. The Jungle Book is a universal film – as its author meant it to be – which tells a universal tale of acceptance of one’s true self, a lesson all of us can gain something from.