The story is already well known. "The Jungle Book" is about Mowgli, a man cub (human boy) raised by a family of wolves in a jungle. When an angry tiger decides Mowgli must die, the boy begins an epic journey through the dangerous and deceptively beautiful jungle to live with the rest of the humans. Throughout his travels, he meets elephants, bears, snakes, monkeys and just about everything in between. The story itself hasn't been altered much, except for one exceptionally smart thing. Rudyard Kipling's 1894 "Jungle Book" stories were thematically tied to the idea that man must overcome nature and master it. This modern telling takes the stance that man must protect the world and act as its guardian in order for there to be anything left. It's a brilliant masterstroke in updating the source material for the time period.
Neel Sethi as Mowgli is all gangly arms and legs as if he sprung whole cloth from the cartoon itself. Since the entire film was shot on sound stages with puppets standing in for the CG animals, Sethi's performance and the direction of Jon Favreau are even more impressive. None of the film would work if we didn't care about Mowgli, and Sethi is instantly lovable.
There isn't a frame of this film that doesn't have a digital creation in it, yet it never feels like an airless construct. The jungle is real and characters such as Baloo, Bagheera, Shere Kahn, Raksha, King Louie and Kaa are fully formed creations. Bill Murray's Baloo (a Himalayan brown bear) is as fun as you would think, but Lupita Nyong'o's Raksha (the mother wolf) and Idris Elba's Shere Kahn (the royal Bengal tiger) are powerful creations, too.
The showstopper of the film is the introduction of King Louie, who has been updated from an orangutan to a Gigantopithecus. Meaning he is a massive and scary creature here, living in the ancient ruins as a Colonel Kurtz-type insane king. His confrontation with Mowgli, combined with unpredictable vocal work by Christopher Walken, make Louie a fearsome and memorable creation people will be talking about for years.
"The Jungle Book" takes the bankable idea of remaking beloved properties and throws the cynicism out the window. If filmgoers get even one new version of an old film as incredible as this, wading through the sequel and remake swamp to get to it is worth it. This is what going to the movies is all about: the wonder, beauty and pure transportation to a world familiar, yet completely cinematic.
Starting in 1994, Disney has released numerous sequels including "Bambi II," "The Little Mermaid II," and "101 Dalmatians II." Most releases go straight to DVD, selling millions the weekend they are released. Disney presumably hedges that most kids aren't too hung up on character development, quality or anything else that makes a movie work. Parents are comfortable with something appropriate to entertain the kids for a few hours, and the formula gets leveraged again and again. Sequels weren't quite easy enough for Disney, though, so it started releasing live action remakes of its classic cartoons (last year's "Cinderella" being among them).
It can sometimes be very easy to look at what Disney has been doing over the last several years and become cynical about the entire operation. It is a much safer bet for the Mouse House to strip mine its entire back catalogue than to create entirely new intellectual properties that could fail miserably. That goes for the entire film industry. However, with "The Jungle Book," somehow, beyond all reason or reckoning, Favreau has made something beautiful, timeless and absolutely enthralling.
"The Jungle Book"
Dir. Jon Favreau
Now Playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX