Film Review: Jungle Book

Disney has been dominating the box office and will for years to come with Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar now residing at the Mouse House.  However, what they are still best known for are their animated offerings and there has been a concerted effort to adapt many of these well-known classics into live action films for the big screen.  Alice In Wonderland, Maleficent and Cinderella were all successful both critically and commercially, but with Jungle Book Disney is taking their biggest risk yet.  Yes, Jungle Book is a well-known property with characters and songs that are extremely memorable, but a movie featuring photo-realistic animals shown talking and a runtime consisting of almost entirely CGI had the potential to fail royally and keep theater-goers away.  If you’ve checked the box office returns this clearly isn’t the case and that is because this movie is much better than it has any reason to be.

First and foremost, credit must be given to Jon Favreau who has made a career as a director by making things better then they should be on paper.  He directed Iron Man (setting the template for the most successful franchise in the world when the MCU was in its infancy) and Elf, a modern Christmas classic.  Here he surrounds himself with an incredible FX team, an A-list voice cast and inserts energy and heart into every frame.I’d say that for probably 75% of the movie Mowgli is in some form of danger, and that breakneck pacing is what kept me interested throughout, but never felt like overkill.  The movie was “fun” and “engaging” and was a perfect family blockbuster.  The reason the movie continues to perform so well despite not having the same level of brand recognition as some of the other blockbusters this year, is because of its four-quadrant appeal.  While it is clearly designed to be a children’s movie, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that won’t enjoy it.

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I had a discussion with someone shortly after watching Jungle Book who asked if it was a “kid’s movie” and specifically if it was suitable for their very young child.  The movie is certainly geared towards children, but be aware that it may be scary for much younger audiences.  As I stated above, Mowgli is in continual danger throughout.  There are characters that are killed, Shere Khan can be quite frightening at times and particularly the climactic battle might be difficult to watch for the little ones.  Most parents will likely shrug it off and say that I’m over-exaggerating, but I just wanted you to be aware in case you know your child scares easily or is quick to experience nightmares after watching something intense.  Overall the story is more mature that the animated counterpart (in a good way) and doesn’t play down to the intended audience.  Pixar has demonstrated for years that it’s possible to make movies entertaining for both kids and adults, ones that tackle “grown-up” themes, and this follows suit to a lesser degree.  There are a few themes explored like the threat of man against nature that will likely go over the head of most small children who will instead be drawn to how funny Baloo is or how cool it is to watch the animals fighting.  In short, it’s family entertainment that won’t leave you looking at your phone every five minutes.

There’s also over-arching messages throughout the film about “family” as well as acceptance and embracing what makes you unique that can act as excellent starting points for discussions with your children afterwards (my boy is too young, but I hope to use our future movie-going ventures as teaching experiences to the greatest extent possible).  It is particularly touching at one point where the animals stand side by side with Mowgli despite a horrible act he accidentally committed (I believe that scene made my wife cry).

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What’s more, the movie is gorgeous.  It’s impossible to talk about Jungle Book without mentioning the visuals.  I watched it in 3D and marveled at the depth of detail of the beautiful jungle and the characters inhabiting it.  From the majesty of the elephants, to the serenity of peace rock, the ferocity of the jungle in flames to the beauty of the Monkey Kingdom the effects were top notch and deserve to be applauded.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I never felt removed from the film watching animals talking (lips moving and all) or knowing that at any given time everything on the screen apart from Mowgli was likely fake.  That alone should make this a top contender for the FX Oscar once award season comes around.  One question I have is that this movie is considered a “live action adaptation” and the majority of what’s on screen in computer generated; where do you draw the line between live action and cartoon?  Can it be considered live action when there’s nothing real or live presented on screen?  That question in no way detracts from the quality of the movie, but it is interesting to ponder moving forward with the ever-expanding capabilities of special effects.

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From a performance standpoint the standout of the film is clearly Neel Sethi as Mowgli.  While being absolutely adorable int he role, he also exhibits an inner strength and intelligence.  furthermore, I can’t begin to comprehend how difficult it must be to act out an entire movie without another person or even sets to interact with.  Sethi performed almost all of his scenes against a green screen without any actors present and still provided a performance that felt genuine.  Apart from Mowgli my favorite characters were easily Shere Khan and Baloo (the obvious choices).  Murray’s Baloo provided some much needed levity throughout the film and stole every scene he was in.  His natural nonchalant charm fit perfectly with the lazy bear.  On the flip side, Shere Khan presented not only a powerful threat (who knew that nobody had the strength to confront him), but he was given a deeper motivation for why he’d want the man cub dead.  Voiced by the always spectacular Idris Elba, he was menacing and one of the better villains on the big screen so far this year.

I wasn’t sure going in whether this was going to be a musical or not.  None of the prior adaptations were, but there was a brief sequence in one of the trailers where Baloo could be heard whistling “Bear Necessities.”  The answer is yes it is, but on a much smaller scale than the original animated version.  Bill Murray’s Baloo sings a rendition of Bear Necessities while floating down the river and Christopher Walken’s King Louie sings “I Wanna Be Like You.”  I’ve liked Walken in the past, but following this and his involvement in the live TV version of Peter Pan makes me not want to see him singing in anything in the future.  As soon as King Louie started singing it took me out of the film because it felt forced.  However, it seems odd to include that song while jettisoning “Trust In Me”, particularly since Scarlet Johansson (as Ka) actually has recorded albums to her credit.

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As for my one sentence review: Jungle Book is a family-friendly blockbuster filled with breathtaking visuals, quick-paced action and entertaining characters that’s both fun and engaging.  I would recommend this to anyone to watch.  Jon Favreau is a director I’m not on the lookout for after several home runs.  I’m also interested to see if Disney can carry this momentum with their upcoming live action adaptations including Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo.

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