by Kevin Muller
In these days, CGI, or computer generated imagery, is so common that we actually yearn and gravitate towards old school practical effects. Spike Jonze adapted the famous children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” using people in giant costumes to portray his monsters instead of fully rendering them with computer graphics and the original “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, definitely not “The Hobbit” movies, used as little CGI as possible. Every so often, a movie comes along that pushes the bar further for what CGI is really capable of achieving. Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” is that very movie. It is a visual masterpiece and a great retelling of the famous Disney cartoon.
Young Mowgli, played here by newcomer Neel Sethi, is a human, or man cub, that lives among the wolves in the beautifully designed jungle. The animals have made a truce with one another based on the lack of water in the area. There is a small inlet of land, with a giant rock stretched out to the sun that contained the last remaining water. Instead of fighting over the water, it was agreed upon that if you are there, you must remain calm and not attack the other creatures in the jungle that some predators may consider lunch or dinner. The gathering of the animals, set against the sun soaked landscape, is so breathtakingly real that it had this reviewer constantly question the claim that this was all shot on a Los Angeles soundstage. Idris Elba, uses his raspy and deep voice to give Shere Kahn the unsympathetic dog eat dog, or tiger eats tiger, attitude he shows towards Mowgli and his fellow creatures. His threats get so bad that Mowgli decides to leave his tribe so no one is hurt. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o provides the warmth and heartbreak of a mother seeing her baby leave her world. Raksha has never seen Mowgli as anything but her son.
Raksha’s depth and relationship to Mowgli is one of the movie’s most important strengths. When the special effects are as good here as they are, and they are mind blowing, the other aspects of the movie are usually awful or subpar. Favreau has assembled a top notch group of people from the actors all the way down to probably the key grip guys. The cinematography, that is being done in a warehouse with limited shooting space is fast, furious, and awe inspiring. The art direction breathes so much life into the story. You can feel the heat of the jungle. Justin Mark’s script respects the Disney cartoon but also breathes new life into it. Mowgli isn’t just a child who is wandering around the jungle going from one set piece to another anymore.
Sethi, who makes his big screen debut in this movie avoids the dreaded label of an annoying child actor. He embodies so much damn charm, enthusiasm, and boyish wonder. Outside of his character performance, the kid made everything around him so damn convincing. Since he was alone on the stage acting to a tennis ball or some object, he had to make you feel that he was emotionally connected to the characters. The highest praises should be given to this young actor. This is a simple coming to age story told with much heart and depth thanks to Sethi.
Even though is costars are only voices, they are also important to the mechanics of making this picture work. How is the big furry Baloo? Bill Murray is the perfect choice to honor this character’s relaxed look on life. He is funny without going overboard to the point of annoyance. The relationship between him and Mowgli is done very well. My favorite casting choice though was getting Christopher Walken to do King Louie, who in this movie is a Gigantopithecus, or a huge ape, instead of the cartoon Orangutan. Not only did the visual effects guys nail the mannerisms but you can actually see Walken’s face in the ape. That actually goes for all the voice cast. Their mannerisms and facial tics are all buried in the characters they play seamlessly
One question that lingered on everyone’s minds was how much of the music was going to be placed in the movie. Would it be a live action musical? While only two songs are actually sung, and not in a Broadway/Old School Disney sort of way, the rest of placed through the instrumental score. You have both Kaa’s hypnotic “Trust in Me” played through the opening credits and “The Elephant March” played through a run in with the elephants. “The Bear Necessities” and “I Want to be like You” are both sung by Murray and Walken in very different, but affecting, scenes.
Even though this review is extremely abundant of praise for the visual effects, they are incredible, okay…that is the last time, the overall movie has the exact epic scope that a film like this one deserves. It has so much heart and a sense of adventure. Favreau has two of the key elements that had to make this work: the professionalism of a hard working director and the child like adventuress side of a child. Ladies and gentleman, this is a great family picture full of lessons, fear, love, and everything in between. It gives the term “blockbuster” more of a positive light by being something more than what meets the eye. It isn’t only a magnificent picture but, so far, the movie to beat this year.
4.5/5 Bear Claws