In the last decade Disney has slowly but surely been churning out live action versions of some of its classic films and stories. There’s been 101 Dalmations, Alice In Wonderland, Maleficent, and Cinderella to name a few. Now to add to that list is The Jungle Book, an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic story as well as Disney’s own animated film from 1967. But when you’re bringing a live action tale about the jungle to the big screen, this film takes a decided step away from the fantasy and goes for a darker realism.
The film follows the story of young Mowgli (Neel Sethi), an orphan who is raised amongst animals in the jungles of south west Asia. Even though he has spent almost his entire life raised by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and the wolf pack, his life becomes threatened when the cruel and vicious tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) vows to kill him as the man-cub does not belong in the jungle. With the help of his friend Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) the black panther, Mowgli must return to the man-village. But along the way he meets new friends and enemies and soon discovers his true place in the world.
Thanks to the wonder of motion capture and digital technology, director Jon Favreau, visual effects supervisor Robert Legato and cinematographer Bill Pope have managed to transport you to the deep jungle and walk amongst the animals. The film is almost disarmingly realistic and the only thing that makes you aware that this isn’t real animals is the fact that they talk. And unlike other “live-action” films that use talking animals, they have opted for a far more subtle effect that results in an almost seamless animation. Favreau was adamant that the animal performances had to not break physics and come from a sense of realism, and ultimately the results are worth watching. Now full disclosure since I can’t properly perceive 3D due to a vision impairment, but I got the distinct sense that this is the sort of film that is worth seeing in 3D. There’s a particular scene of stampeding buffalo that resembles a certain sequence in The Lion King that will leave your heart racing. The environments, and the action sequences feel like they have more substance, weight, depth and movement. All of this ultimately adds up to a visually detailed and beautiful film to watch.
Now if you have seen the trailer for this, you might pick up on the fact that the film is not only delving into realism, but also goes for a much darker angle. Even though it takes a few of its narrative beats from the animated Disney film, this film probably has a bit more in common tonally with the Kipling books. There isn’t much whimsy going on here, and even when Mowgli does get a few moments of peace and the opportunity to feel like he’s part of the jungle community, he’s quickly reminded of the dangers that surround him. This film is definitely not designed with smaller children in mind, so parents be mindful. But where the younger audiences miss out, is where the parents and “big kids” can step in, as there are enough drops of humour, music, drama, tension and some aggressive animal fighting, to keep those demographics enthralled.
From a music standpoint, the film is only loosely connected to the animated version. What you will notice is that some of the songs from the Disney animated film make it in as orchestral score courtesy of John Debney. The only actual songs to make the cut are ‘The Bare Necessities’, a revised version of ‘I Wanna Be Like You” (aka King Louie’s song), and ‘Trust In Me’ which plays during the credits. As mentioned earlier, the reason behind this is because the film is clearly going for a more Kipling feel so to have too many would potentially turn it into a musical when it’s supposed to be an overall more dramatic film.
A good feature can be elevated not just by its production or its narrative or tones but by also having a strong cast. Personally I felt like this was perfectly cast. From the exceptional Neel Sethi as Mowgli, who for his young age manages to convincingly shoulder the burden of this film. Then to the powerhouses in Bill Murray as Baloo and Christopher Walken as King Louie. The former we all know as a bit of a larrikin but somebody who is dependable which suits Baloo. And the latter who channels a bit of a mobster boss for his King Louie. There is finesse in the delivery of both Idris Elba (as Shere Khan) and Ben Kingsley (as Bagheera) – I’m not sure if it was intentional or not to cast the two Brits as the big cats who go head-to-head, but it sure does work. There was some supposed complaints going around having Scarlett Johansson play Kaa, but I felt like there needed to be some balance and an additional female voice doesn’t go astray amongst such a male-dominated film. But it’s not just the voices that are on show here, the motion-capture that was used to create some of the facial expressions for the animals show up a treat. It’s particularly noticeable with King Louie and Christopher Walken where you can practically see Walken’s face in Louie.
There were only a couple of minor gripes I had with this film. The first of which being the pacing, which feels like it does have moments where it lags a little or where they linger in place a little too long. This then results with the final confrontation and then the resolution to come a little rushed in the last few minutes of the film. Then there’s also a moment in the film where Mowgli happens to meet some small furry creatures that he is unable to “speak” to, and quizzes them over their “language”. Considering that it was never explained how it is that he’s able to speak to and understand a number of other jungle animals, it seems odd to have this moment in the film where he actually quizzes these “non-speaking” creatures without any real explanation given after the fact. But really these are only minor annoyances in an otherwise solid film.
This version of The Jungle Book definitely and purposefully ditches the whimsical Disney in favour of a more realistic and darker portrayal. The animation is top notch, and this is definitely the sort of film that is worth seeing in 3D for the added depth and weight. The characters may have been allegorical and the story considered a fable but the themes it tries to convey are all too real and relatable. To add to this is an exceptional cast, led by Neel Sethi who is utterly convincing as Mowgli. This is a disarmingly beautiful, occasionally dark film that manages to combine the best of both the Kipling original tale and Disney animated classic for both new and old audiences to enjoy.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 106 minutes
The Jungle Book will screen in select Australian cinemas from 7th April 2016, with a full nationwide release from 14th April 2016 through Walt Disney Studios Australia. Check your local listings.