A few years ago, Walt Disney decided to look inward at its vault of classic films and began adapting them into live-action features. The studio first struck gold with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, then with Maleficent, but both films never received complete fan or critical acceptance. However, with last year’s hit Cinderella, they found that audiences responded more positively to true adaptations of the classics, not drastic reinterpretations.
While Tim Burton and Kenneth Branagh laid the groundwork, Jon Favreau (Iron Man) is the first director to truly break the code in adapting the studio’s classics into live-action for modern audiences. The Jungle Book is an exhilarating piece of family filmmaking that manages to succeed on a visual and emotional level that has historically been reserved for Disney’s animated masterpieces.
The Jungle Book is adapted from the 1967 Disney animated feature, which was inspired from the series of works by Rudyard Kipling. While there have been numerous adaptations of the story, Disney’s animated version has been seen as the definitive version for over fifty years. It’s no small feat that Favreau may have crafted the definitive version of the story for the next fifty years. The film follows the original’s familiar beats, while screenwriter Justin Marks fleshes out the story using additional material from Kipling’s books. The result is a world that feels fully formed, with endless possibilities for jungle adventures.
The story follows Mowgli, a growing “man-cub” who was raised by a pack of wolves in a savage and unforgiving jungle. The boy is forced to leave the comforts of his home when a deadly tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), makes it clear that he intends to eliminate the human who he feels has no place in his terrain. In an effort to save his family, Mowgli leaves his pack and befriends a carefree bear, Baloo (Bill Murray), before being forced to face his destiny.
It’s impossible to talk about the merits of The Jungle Book without bringing up the ground-breaking visual effects. Everything from the lush jungle backdrops to an entire ecosystem of life was created. The attention to details from the waging of a tail to the involuntary flick of an ear, bring the animation to life in ways that have never been seen before. It’s no small feat that you will quickly forget that you are watching talking animals and they simply become relatable characters.
Neel Sethi plays Mowgli, the only human in the movie, with a charismatic charm. It is even more impressive when you realize that the young actor was also the only tangible element on screen, as the world was completely created on a green-screen set. In other words, Sethi is a prodigy when it comes to playing with his imaginary friends. While his performance is noticeable around the edges, it’s still a huge accomplishment that the young actor was able to carry the film on his frail shoulders. No matter how revolutionary the special effects are, they would not be believable if the performance from Sethi fell flat. While he’s not the movie’s selling point, he does an admirable job bringing the character and well-known scenarios to three-dimensional life.
The animals of The Jungle Book are perfectly cast as even the more well-known actor’s voices, such as Bill Murray and Christopher Walken, snuggly inhabit their characters. And yes, there are musical numbers and allusions to the classic songs that you would expect. Ben Kingsley (The Walk) and Lupita Nyong’o (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) also ground the movie with an earthy soul, that gives the animals a sense of gravitas that’s filled with human emotion.
Idris Elba brings a menace and danger to the lethal Shere Khan that’s palpable and is already one of the year’s more memorable villains. Like the best antagonists, his viewpoint and distrust of humankind is completely valid, which adds an extra layer of richness to the conflict. There’s also a visceral realism to the action, that at times blurs the lines between fantasy and National Geographic, giving an emotional weight to each vicious attack.
This is flat out the best adaptation of The Jungle Book ever. The film nimbly shifts tones from action to comedy to a survival thriller, while safely playing in the boundaries prescribed by the classic story. Favreau is able to craft a modern adventure, while still paying homage to the history and fond memories many have of the original. This is the new bar of excellence that has been set for Disney’s live-action adaptations. Go check it out.