Rudyard Kipling’s original “Jungle Book” has been near and dear to my heart since I was a small child (spare me the critical theory about Kipling and colonialism, I was four and I liked heroic mongooses). The story is intimately familiar to many of us: Mowgli (Neet Sethi), an orphan boy lost in the Indian jungle and subsequently adopted by a wolf pack led by mighty Akela, is pursued by wicked tiger Shere Khan. Alongside a variety of animal friends, and in the course of several memorable adventures, Mowgli grows to manhood and prepares to face Shere Khan.
This movie captures and distills that simplicity, charm, and near-universal appeal.
Among the film’s many, many strengths, its voice casting – featuring Ben Kingsley as Bagheera the panther, Bill Murray as Baloo the bear, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, and Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the seductive python – is indisputably genius. Director Jon Favreau (of “Elf” and “Iron Man” fame) gratifyingly resists the urge to over-mythologize his story (read: we don’t get a grim-and-gritty backstory for everyone in sight!), and the lighter touch works to the movie’s great advantage. Moreover, Favreau manages to organize a fairly disjointed story into a semblance of linearity (in so doing, fixing several of the original 1967 cartoon’s odd pacing issues). Most notably, villainous ape leader King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken) has been upgraded from a skipping orangutan to a huge, menacing Gigantopithecus (whose signature song, “I Wanna Be Like You,” becomes a menacing, Godfather-esque tune).
Additionally, this movie’s CGI is outstanding, particularly where the film’s animal leads are concerned- fur and hair particle effects have come a very long way since the 1990s. Viewers can quibble in good faith about whether or not the totality of the greenscreening works to the film’s credit or its detriment (there are a few, although infrequent, lapses into digital “weightlessness”), but as a technical achievement, “The Jungle Book” is remarkable indeed. (As a random aside, its talking animals don’t look dumb at all, which gives me the faintest of hopes that someday we’ll get a top-quality “Redwall” movie to test the boundaries of this technology).
Picky audiences might come away with a few minor points of dissatisfaction. For one thing, the movie’s fiery climax (while big and epic and immensely crowd-pleasing) is a bit paint-by-numbers and unsubtle. Another small gripe: this movie is very, very fast-paced, so much so that there’s not a lot of breathing room. As some others have observed, this is one of the prettiest hyperreal digital universes since “Avatar” – it’s a bit of a shame there’s not much time dedicated to slow-burning, breathtaking awe.
As an early start to the summer movie season, “The Jungle Book” is a great success and well worth seeing. There’s simply no deconstructionism or cynicism here, nor does the movie subsist on pop culture references and sarcastic irony: Favreau plays this adventure story straight, and should be commended for it. This is escapist fantasy at its best, a vivacious throwback to a simpler and cheerier era. And just about everyone will enjoy it.
A charming, eye-candy-laden Kipling adaptation that all ages will appreciate. Highly recommended.
Normalized Score: 6.9