That little human is out of his mind!
Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is an orphaned “man cub” taken in by a family of wolves to protect him from the dangers of the jungle, but there are rules. When the great tiger Shere Khan (voice of Idris Elba) discovers Mowgli’s existence, he demands to be given the man cub, but the wolves send Mowgli with panther Bagheera (voice of Ben Kingsley) out of harm’s way to live with his own kind. The two become separated during an attack, giving the bear Baloo (voice of Bill Murray) a golden opportunity. Between Shere Khan wanting to kill him and King Louie (voice of Christopher Walken) wanting the secrets of man, Mowgli has plenty of reasons to leave the jungle… but better ones to stay.
Directed and co-produced by Jon Favreau, the trailers suggest exactly what we expect: photo-quality CGI animals talking to a live actor. Where’s the charm and silliness? What about all the songs? You know the story and music from the Disney traditionally animated feature — or maybe not — but to justify the expense, Disney wants everyone to see this new version. A cartoon jungle with watercolor backgrounds isn’t exactly scary, so clearly our CGI jungle has to seem frightening to insiders and outsiders both, as do all the predators. Favreau has both Zathura and Cowboys and Aliens under his belt, so he knows how to combine adventure, humor, and danger, but will that enhance the story or hinder it?
Here’s an idea: let’s remake all of our animated classics as live-action, mostly CGI features! Okay… you’ve heard it. The songs have been pushed into the background — Kaa’s song by Scarlet Johansson gets pushed back to the end credits, not unlike her character — with the notable exception of King Louie’s showstopper. The real trick, however, was to find a Mowgli who could handle reacting toward things that weren’t there or being represented by something else, and Neel Sethi made it feel so natural that belief was instantly suspended. Refusing to be upstaged, a jungle full of amazing talking critters only enhanced Sethi’s performance rather than dampen it. In a word, it worked perfectly; even Bill Murray’s Baloo couldn’t upstage Mowgli — not for a lack of trying.
The level of details is astonishing. Take Bagheera’s coat, for example: a black panther whose too-subtle striping you can actually see reflected in sunlight (much like many black cats) during a scene toward the end in a tree. Creature movement has been perfectly timed with only the slightest issues when it comes to gravity; it can be difficult to animate a several hundred pound creature’s weight and muscles shifting as it drops down from a height, but you really have to watch close to catch it. Animators must have gone through hours of video and possibly visited more than a few zoos to get the controls just right, especially to reflect emotion through body language as well as lip motion for their words — not bad for creatures who couldn’t form those words if they could speak.
Story alterations have been made to crank up the danger, pushing a few characters into the background — Scarlet Johansson’s part for Kaa was notably reduced and more sinister than her traditionally animated inspiration. Perhaps because the realism made everything in Mowgli’s world more dire, the creatures sometimes seemed like little more than talking pets; who wants to cuddle up with a black panther? There’s also more than a few moments where little happens other than showing how cool everything looks, a common issue with these all-CGI art fests. More than those complaints is nitpicking other than the necessity of making the movie in the first place. A small change to the ending implies Mowgli’s story has been left wide open for sequels, stories that would take our hero in new directions to look forward to.
The Jungle Book is for all ages, although some parts are scarier for the little ones. Since a sequel is only dependent upon this film’s success, here’s hoping Kaa will get more to do in the future and in a less-villainous capacity.
3 Skull Recommendation Out of Four