Jon Favreau, who has become a master of both the understated indie comedy as well as the mega-budget blockbuster, combines heart and spectacle with his rendition of The Jungle Book. The film includes terrific newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli, a star studded cast of voice talent, and some of the best effects in recent memory. There is action, adventure, and plenty of lessons to be learned by children and adults alike.
The Jungle Book, based on the Rudyard Kipling stories from the late Nineteenth Century, combined with elements from Disney’s 1967 animated feature of the same name (including updated takes on several of the songs from that movie), tells the tale of Mowgli, an orphaned man-cub. Having been rescued by a panther named Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley, who also provides the film’s narration) when he was just a baby and raised by a pack of wolves, including adoptive parents Raksha and Akela (voiced by Lupita N’yongo and Giancarlo Esposito, respectively), has adapted quite well to the life of the jungle, but still finds he doesn’t quite fit in. One day, a tiger named Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba), bent on revenge for the scars on his face that were caused by a man, vows to kill Mowgli once the rainy season begins, forcing Bagheera to take Mowgli on a journey back to the man village. After being separated from his protector Bagheera, Mowgli encounters many colorful characters on his adventure through the jungle, like Baloo the Bear (voiced perfectly by Bill Murray), a python by the name of Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and a gigantopithicus named King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken).
One of the most impressive aspects of The Jungle Book is that it was filmed entirely on a soundstage in Los Angeles. The environment is fantastical but incredibly realistic, and the animals (though bordering on somewhat cartoonish) fit the world flawlessly. Normally, CGI animals take the viewer out of the film to a certain extant. Even though CGI has continued to get better and better over the years, it still always feels a little out of place. In this film, however, the animals and the world, while never feeling completely of this world, mesh together to create something else entirely. It helps that there is really only one live actor that appears on camera, but it is because the effects are so well done and so all encompassing that the world comes to life in such a visceral way. Much of the credit should be given to director Jon Favreau, as well as cinematographer Bill Pope, neither of whom are a stranger to working with special effects.
Another reason the film works so well is its star, Neel Sethi. Sethi is spectacular as Mowgli, a role that requires an actor to exhibit a range of emotions, and to do it all on a sound stage. That is no small feat, even for an accomplished adult actor, but Sethi manages to go from enthusiastic to bratty to heartbroken to heroic, and all of the subtle shades in between. This is Favreau’s second film in a row to feature a child actor in a leading role—the director also discovered the talented Emjay Anthony (who also voices one of the wolves in this film) for his 2014 film Chef. In addition to Sethi, the cast of voices is great, as well. Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Lupita N’yongo, Giancarlo Esposito, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken, Scarlett Johansson, Jon Favreau, and the late Garry Shandling bring an incredible amount of humor and substance to the animals occupying the jungle.
The Jungle Book is a fun adventure that the whole family will enjoy. The cast (both live and voice) is excellent, the special effects are outstanding, and the music is delightful (although there is a very good chance you will have “Bare Necessities” stuck in your head for the next week and a half). While there have been a slew of remakes and reboots over the past several years—and most of them have been entirely unnecessary—this one stands above the fray as a supremely entertaining version of a classic tale. See it in the theater to get the full experience.