‘The Jungle Book’ Review: How Disney’s Latest Live-Action Adventure Justifies the Cinematic Experience
Posted on Friday, April 15th, 2016 by Angie Han
Between Sean Parker’s Screening Room and AMC’s tentatively proposed (and quickly discarded) texting-allowed policy, we’ve seen a lot of debate in recent weeks about the sanctity (or lack thereof) of the theatrical experience. Cinephiles will swear up and down that a pristine movie theater is the only proper way to enjoy a movie — and I tend to agree — but the truth is that for a lot of moviegoers, the drawbacks outweigh the benefits. Why fork over $100 for tickets and popcorn and a babysitter, put up with screaming kids and sticky floors, when you can just rent something from the comfort of your own couch? So what if you’re missing out on 3D and giant screens and surround sound?
Jon Favreau‘s The Jungle Book is the answer to that “so what.” It’s a technical achievement on par with Avatar and Life of Pi, the kind of cutting-edge stunner that actually justifies all the extra premiums and hassles associated with 3D and the theater experience in general. If you’re planning to see this movie at all, see it in 3D while it’s still in theaters. The film’s heart and humor will still be intact when it reaches home video, and thank goodness for that, but the magic of its special effects is on another level altogether.
Reimagining an Animated Classic
The Jungle Book is the latest entry in Disney’s ongoing series of live-action reboots of its own animated classics, following Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, and Cinderella. It’s based on the stories of Rudyard Kipling, but it’s really modeled after the studio’s 1967 animated adaptation of same. Neel Sethi plays Mowgli, a “man-cub” raised by the wolves Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). Although the jungle is the only home he’s ever known, he’s forced to return to the “man-village” when the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) demands the wolf pack hand over Mowgli on pain of death.
So Mowgli sets out on a journey, accompanied by his panther friend Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Although Favreau’s new version takes some liberties with the storyline (the ending is notably different), it hits most of the same beats. Mowgli still has run-ins with Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and King Louie (Christopher Walken), he still befriends Baloo (Bill Murray), and so on. The new Jungle Book even nods to the old Jungle Book‘s signature tunes “Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You,” with mixed results. They’re too memorable a part of the original to scrap altogether, but their goofy spirit is an odd fit for the otherwise naturalistic movie. The half-assed versions sung by Murray and Walken feel more dutiful than heartfelt.
An Eye-Popping, Jaw-Dropping Technical Achievement
The Jungle Book impresses before it even properly begins, as the familiar Disney castle recedes into the distance while we pull back into the jungle. We then hit the ground running, quite literally, following Mowgli as he races through the jungle with wolf cubs nipping at his heels. We’re with him for every swing from a vine and jump off a log. Already, it’s shocking how photo-real the animation looks. If I hadn’t known The Jungle Book was shot almost entirely on soundstages in downtown Los Angeles, I’d be marveling at the location scouts’ discovery of an untouched paradise and the animal wranglers’ uncanny talent for getting these beasts to perform on cue. In truth, only Sethi is “real”; all the animals and the settings were crafted in CG by the wizards at MPC and Weta.
Favreau uses 3D to add depth to the picture, rather than to send things flying in toward the audience. The impression we’re left with is that we’re peering out a giant window into a thick jungle, and it’s further underlined by one shot in which a few stray “water droplets” land on the “camera.” And instead of using CG magic to show us impossible things, he uses them to replicate the natural world. Knowing how much of The Jungle Book was done on computers, I couldn’t resist looking for the seams. I found none, or close enough to it. The team has accounted for every detail, from the weight of the animals as they walk and the counterweight of the ground as it pushes back, to every tiny twitch of an ear or ripple of the fur. Even the mouth movements of the animals as they speak, somehow work. It takes little effort on the part of the viewer to believe a tiger really has the voice of Idris Elba, or a wolf talks like an American-accented Lupita Nyong’o.
This vivid photo-realism adds an extra level of grittiness to the movie’s action sequences, which are as well choreographed and well shot as any blockbuster climax. A stampede cribbed straight from The Lion King skips the most traumatic part (Mufasa’s death — uh, spoiler alert) but doubles down on the panic of being a tiny body lost among violently thundering masses. While The Jungle Book is not a scary movie per se, the shocks are visceral enough that parents of very young children might want to leave them at home.