The Jungle Book (2016)

Posted by Joel Copling on April 14, 2016

It seems that the awe inspired by blockbusters of yesteryear is becoming lesser and further from our grasp in this current climate of superheroes and explosions, so the presence of something like "The Jungle Book" in 2016 is a blessing. Yes, it's another adaptation (this one by screenwriter Justin Marks) of the stories by Rudyard Kipling that have inspired other screen adaptations (from Zoltan Korda's 1942 version to the classic 1967 animated film, which was the last to be overseen directly by Walt Disney, to various sequels and television adaptations). This version, a towering achievement among all of them, immediately justifies its existence in two ways.

The first way is through sheer technological advancement, and there's no more nuanced of saying that the film is the next watershed moment in the achievements of which visual effects are capable. The human subject at the center of the story seems to be truly interacting with the computer-generated animals (Incredibly, no motion-capture was utilized here, and the detail of the facial expressions and how they shift is more intimidating for it). Those animals also truly seem to be interacting with each other (a major feat, considering the camera is often trained upon what does not in reality exist) and with their surroundings (I'm fairly certain that one shot depicts a computer-generated creation actually "floating" in real water).

There is no cartoonishness here (at least not in the traditional sense of the term). The complexity of the movements and expressions (Ok, maybe the hair of the animals is a bit too feathery in its movements to be entirely believable) is exhilarating to behold, in particularly a scarred tiger who must appear imposing even in the darkness of night, a bear who must retain its outward ferociousness while a certain playfulness has to be present in the features, and a giant ape whose strikingly blue eyes stand out in particular. It feels weighty and genuine, and the surrounding jungle, as captured by cinematographer Bill Pope, is both lush and forbidding.

The other achievement is in that familiar narrative. There are a few tweaks here (No young girl appears at the end to introduce our hero to humanity on ground level) and there (What causes a fire in the climax is deliberate here, rather than accidental, and fear on the villain's part seems nonexistent), but the heart of it remains the same. We all know it: Mowgli (Neel Sethi in an expressive and fantastic debut performance) is a young boy raised by two wolves named Akela and Raksha (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito and a warm, compassionate Lupita Nyong'o) and a panther named Bagheera (voice of Ben Kingsley). Shere Khan (voice of a truly intimidating Idris Elba), the tiger, is, of course, the villain, and he wants Mowgli dead.

This is, most importantly, a study of a primitive civilization's political structure. It's a power dynamic much like the food chain, with Shere Khan the dominant head of it and, of course, the shift at the end to the more accurate version of the chain. These animals have real discussions about weighty, heavy, complex situations, so of course the film must veer into the arena of playfulness when Mowgli escapes and runs into Baloo (voice of Bill Murray in a fun role), the lovable bear who teaches the boy about--well, you know the song--and Louie (voice of a terrific Christopher Walken), the giant ape and king with a loaded name who just wants to be like Mowgli.

The songs that accompany those latter characters feel just a bit disjointed from the rest of the film's tone, but they occur at the film's lightest and most joyful moments (Nostalgia might be the source of their existence here, but we must remember that nostalgia is one of those bare necessities for a contented life). The rest is comparatively serious business, climaxing with a thrilling scene set among burning trees and wildlife that ups the danger to 11. Marks and director Jon Favreau never once speak down to a target audience (preferably eight years or older) that will eat this kind of spectacle up, perhaps without reckoning a genuine sense of the scope of this epic story. "The Jungle Book" is downright triumphant.

Film Information

Neel Sethi (Mowgli).

Featuring the voices of Bill Murray (Baloo), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera), Lupita Nyong'o (Raksha), Idris Elba (Shere Khan), Christopher Walken (King Louie), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa), Giancarlo Esposito (Akela), Brighton Rose (Gray), and Garry Shandling (Ikki).

Directed by Jon Favreau and written by Justin Marks, based on the books by Rudyard Kipling.

Rated PG (scary action/peril).

105 minutes.

Released on April 15, 2016.