The latest incarnation of The Jungle Book is an attempt to sew together two very different types of movies, and the fit isn’t always the snuggest one. On one hand, you have an attempt from director Jon Favreau, to muscle up the 1967 Disney film—cute animals are transformed into raging, destructive, kinetic forces of nature, a vast canvas of what savagery the jungle can truly offer. On the other hand you retain the classic cuddliness of the original, with Baloo the warm-hearted sloth bear (voiced by Bill Murray) crooning “Bear Necessities” while wading through a river, trying to find some honey. These two disparate parts are, one suspects, more an economic convenience than a storytelling one, and it turns the movie into an odd beast: A powerful exploration of the cruelty of nature in which the animals occasionally break into song.
The basic story of Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi, who is more expressive than he is emotive) is still here: A “man-cub” raised in the jungle by a panther named Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) and a wolfpack. Eventually it becomes clear that the man-cub is becoming a man, so Bagheera sends him on a journey to find his true family of humans to keep him from being eaten by a brutal tiger dictator (voiced by Idris Elba in full Beasts of No Nation mode). Along the way, Mowgli meets that sloth bear, battles with a Gigantopithecus orangutan named King Louie—whose vocal similarity to Christopher Walken is perhaps the least scary thing about him—and ultimately learns how to embrace his human abilities while staying true to his jungle roots. (There’s also a moment where he runs into a porcupine, giving the adults in the audience the opportunity to hear Garry Shandling’s voice one last time.)
That orangutan is a pretty good indicator of what Favreau’s Jungle Book is trying to do, actually. In the original, this is King Louie:
Voiced by trumpeter Louis Prima, he’s a funny, goofy, scat-scatting cat who gives the movie its big show-stopping musical number. But here, he’s Gigantopithecus, a, a terrifying King Kong-type who attempts to murder Mowgli and ends up destroying an entire village on his rampage. He’s an impressive CGI creation and legitimately scary— you understand the fight that Mowgli’s in for—but he’s also as powerful as a Transformer, and equally destructive, which makes it that much more jarring when he breaks into song. Is Louie a goofy construct or a deadly predator? Favreau renders him as the former, but the Disney tug keeps yanking him back toward the latter.
Favreau is an underrated big-budget filmmaker; he can handle the spectacle of a blockbuster while still infusing it with needed wit and bounce. He’s the rare modern action filmmaker whose conjures up sensation without descending into incoherence; a solid, impressive professional director who lays out clean, simple scenes and builds them into visual wonder: You can always tell what’s going on, why it matters and where it’s heading. The movie’s CGI is seamless, and Favreau is packs the frame with details that provide context and depth without distracting you from the business at hand. He has provided a large-scale reimagining of the Jungle Book legend, taking the cartoonish jungle of the original and recreating it as a sprawling, frighteningly real version of an often-uncaring, cruel jungle. There has been some talk that the movie is too scary for children, but kids are resourceful creatures: They can handle a little danger, and Favreau never goes over the top with it into truly terrifying places. Your children will be far more permanently damaged from your ill-advised decision to take them to Batman v. Superman.
Favreau’s a skilled craftsman, and his vision for The Jungle Book is so well-considered and professionally assembled, that you find yourself wishing he had been able to eliminate the talking animals all together. His vision is undercut by the fact this has to be a Jungle Book movie. There is menace and emotion and warm sentiment here, but it is all based in realism. (A movie with a Bill Murray Bear trying to get himself some honey can only have so much realism.) Favreau has done something sort of amazing: He has made a gritty reboot of The Jungle Book. It’s a profoundly weird job to request of someone, but damned if he hasn’t pulled it off.
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