“I will have you all in my teeth!” -Shere Kahn
The recent trend of Disney digging into their vaults and remaking their animated classics in live action has mostly been a frustrating endeavour. It’s clear why they are doing it. This is an age of pre-packaged goods based on popular properties and Disney has a stable full of them that charmed generations. The trouble is that movies like Maleficent and Cinderella felt forced and woefully inferior to their dated predecessors. The prospect of a live action Jungle Book felt particularly dire in this regard. Not only does the 1967 Disney animated version hold up just fine to contemporary eyes, but the property itself has already been adapted and sequelized to death, with a disappointing live action Disney version already having stunk up screens in the 90s. Leave it to the perpetually under-appreciated Jon Favreau to deliver a new edition of The Jungle Book filled with actual vision, wonderment, humour, excitement, and even the unexpected in a tale told too many times. This is beautiful blockbuster filmmaking that justifies Disney’s ‘in with the old’ brand revival model. If they can pair of few more old properties with filmmakers who care, it might actually be worth telling these stories again.
Favreau’s edition of The Jungle Book is layered with homage to the Disney classic as well as the layabout humour the animation team brought to the table, yet also laced with the darkness and foreboding adventure of Rudyard Kipling’s original tale. The narrative is familiar and as episodic as always. First time actor Neel Sethi stars as Mowgli, a little boy in red underoos who was raised by wolves (in this case, specifically Lupita Nyong’o’s loving wolf mama with bite). Ben Kingsley’s panther Bageera watches over the human cub and insists that he leave the pack for the human world when Idris Elba’s genuinely terrifying human-hating lion Shere Khan demands blood. Thus begins an adventure through the jungle/a parable about growing up with Mowgli bumping into all the iconic Jungle Book characters you remember and an inevitable big ol’ battle to wrap things up.
The first thing that must be noted about The Jungle Book is how absolutely stunningly beautiful it is. The special effects cause genuine wonder. There is something magical about the combination of photorealistic and anatomically correct animals with human speech (especially with actors this perfectly cast). They move with real weight and express with true character. Every hair and feather moves with impeccable detail and the jungle surroundings never cease to amaze. Yet there’s something about how Favreau and his genius cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix, Army Of Darkness) shoot, frame, and light it all that adds to the magic. Favreau has always been fairly unapologetic about how he borrows n’ steals from the Spielberg playbook to visually construct a narrative, but here the director really captures that old timey Spielberg magic. Every character and setting is shot to provide maximum impact. But not in a show off Superbowl commercial way, more in a manner suited to visceral storytelling and awe. This digital Jungle feels alive, fun, dangerous, menacing, and drop dead gorgeous. It’s gorgeous to behold on the big screen and even features some wonderfully deep and immersive picture box 3D.
Of course, Favreau was an actor’s director long before he became a blockbuster wizard. So expect every character and performer to leave a mark. Scarlett Johannson’s breathy slither creeps as Kaa, Ben Kingsley classes up the joint as Bagheera, and Lupita Nyong’o provides the heart. Everyone’s good, but three roles particularly stand out thanks to surreally perfect casting. Bill Murray obviously kills it as Baloo, especially when neither he nor Favreau can resist slipping in “The Bear Necessities” to their non-musical. Christopher Walken also gets in a few lyrics of “I Want To Be Like You” as King Louie, but mostly plays the character as a creepy mafia don in a manner that almost defies explanation but somehow works perfectly. Yet, it’s Idris Elba who casts the biggest shadow over the film as Shere Khan, he’s a frightening force and one that Favreau admirably never holds back. The film may well frighten children, but in that healthy way that great children’s art can. Despite the astounding digital wizardry creating the world, Favreau’s pitch perfect casting and carefully controlled performances bring the characters to life beautifully. At the center of it all is Neel Sethi, who occasionally struggles with the pressure of carrying a green screen blockbuster, yet for the most part admirably holds together the massive production as the only purely human element.
There’s not really much to complain about in Jon Favreau’s version of The Jungle Book. The guy clearly had a distinct vision that was both playfully adventurous and darkly exciting. It’s a riveting ride that somehow makes an old tale feel fresh and vital. Admittedly the episodic tale can feel a bit formless and the message is somewhat unclear despite a number of troubling and intriguing themes that are touched upon. It’s not a perfect film, but it nails it’s very specific ambitions perfectly. Favreau has managed to revive The Jungle Book and provide a massive CGI blockbuster with the type of wonderment and life that isn’t often possible in such pixel-heavy productions. It’s a magical bit of massive entertainment that will hopefully extend to audiences beyond the matinee family crowd. This thing just works and shows that even the crassest of commercial studio projects can offer enthralling filmmaking. At a certain point, it’s going to be hard to consider Jon Favreau as an eccentric outsider in the blockbuster world. He’s getting too good at mounting this massive productions. After this, Iron Man, Elf, and Made, it’s probably time to simply consider him great filmmaker without qualifications (even if that means he’ll likely never make another season of Dinner For Five, which breaks my lil’ heart).
Unsurprisingly, The Jungle Book is absolutely astounding on Blu-ray. The gorgeously detailed images pop off the screen with remarkable clarity and detail. Even without 3D, it’s easy to feel like your television turns into a window onto another world. The pounding soundtrack is equally impressive, transforming a living room into a living and breathing jungle with the right set up. Throw away all of the other Blu-rays you own that you consider a home theater showcase. None will quite compare to this.
Jon Favreau has always been a fan of DVD special features, so he makes sure that this disc comes stocked with material. It kicks off with a fantastic 35-minute documentary about the unique production. Favreau speaks about his desire to stay true to Kipling’s original vision while still including the best beats from the old animated film and the special effects supervisors dig deep into how they were able to develop such remarkable imagery. It’s a fantastic look into contemporary blockbuster filmmaking for a movie that actually used the tools to make something transcendent. Next up, comes an 8-minute featurette on the difficult casting and impressive performance of young star Neel Sethi that is predictably inspiring and adorable. Oddly, the King Louie sequence gets a brief featurette showing the material at various stages of production that’s a short too brief to offer the right amount of detail on the complex effects work, but does feature a little extra Christopher Walken and that’s always a good thing.
Finally, Favreau sits down for a commentary track and the guy is one of the best at such things. He dives into all aspects of The Jungle Book’s production with a mixture of insight and quiet wit. It’s an easy, breazy listen with plenty of juicy info nuggets. Annnd that’s it for this disc. So, it’s not exactly overflowing with supplements, but at least everything included is well worth dipping into. That’s surprisingly rare with major studio Blu-ray releases these days, so it’s much appreciated.
Does this deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
If you missed Jungle Book in theaters but love Favreau and/or the finer points of contemporary blockbuster production, seek this out immediately. If you’ve already seen the movie, then you know why you need to own this and may as well just follow through.