Below is a spoiler free review of The Jungle Book, however there is some minor exploration into the film's story structure and themes, so proceed with the standard degree of caution.
The Walt Disney Company has been on one hell of a hot streak as of late. Between the string of successes that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the mega hit of 2015 that was Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the award-winning children's powerhouses Frozen and Big Hero 6, Disney is a force to be reckoned with that should have other studios shaking in their boots.
Sliding in just under the radar of the aforementioned theatrical juggernauts (but not far under the radar by any means) are the live action remakes of some of Walt Disney's most beloved animated classics. Beginning, for all intents and purposes, with Tim Burton's take on Alice in Wonderland and really taking shape with the Angelina Jolie driven Maleficent (a revision on the classic Sleeping Beauty), the live action remakes hit a new high with 2015's visually stunning and delightfully entertaining Cinderella. Now, the director of Iron Man has brought us an updated take on The Jungle Book, originally based on the books by Rudyard Kipling, and it is nothing short of spectacular.
Honestly, the original 1967 animated film was one of my least favorite of the original Disney classics. I was a much bigger fan of Tailspin, personally. I went back and re-watched it just before seeing this new film and it still doesn't thrill me. It has great songs (as do most Disney films) and it has a decent enough basic story. But it always felt like it was lacking something. There wasn't a whole lot of substance. [Director] Jon Favreau has changed that completely. The Jungle Book is one Gigantopithecus of a good time!
The film introduces us to the young and incredibly talented Neel Sethi, who plays a live action spitting image of Mowgli, which should also help appease the hordes of people who are constantly screaming about the "white washed Hollywood." Seldom is a performance by essentially the only live person in a movie so well done, let alone from someone so young. The reactions, mannerisms and dramatic beats that Sethi hits bring so much more depth to the character and the film.
One of the other main problems I had with the original film was that, like most animated films of the time, it suffered from a roughly 75 minute runtime. It essentially forced the story structure into a corner of "here's your characters and here's the immediate thing that they are doing." It didn't allow for backstory, drama or depth of character. Favreau's new take on the material expands on Mowgli's relationship with the wolf pack that raised him (characters who were severly lacking of screentime in the original) — more specifically his younger wolf brother, Gray, and his wolf mother, Raksha (voiced by Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong'o).
There's more emphasis on the importance that fire plays to the story. It's part of the reason that Shere Khan wants Mowgli dead and it represents the thing that the jungle fears the most about Man. It's a vital part of the story and helps bridge everything together in a profound, metaphorical way.
The world building on display is as equally breathtaking and compelling as any part of the story or the performances. The art direction and visual effects are astounding — a definite competitor for both respective Oscars this coming year, in my opinion. And if you happen to see it in 3D you will be completely amazed and immersed in the world that Disney has presented to you. Often times 3D technology is slapped together and it can't keep up with the frame rate or the CG spectacles in action. The Jungle Book brings you a 3D world that is beautiful and fully immersive — definitely something you are not likely to forget.
The villains of the film are on a whole new level, as well. Early Disney was a different animal when it came to its antagonists. They were much more comical and, well, kid friendly. While The Jungle Book is still a very family friendly film, you might want to take a look for yourself before letting your child under 3 (give or take) sit down with it. Not only is Shere Kahn much more prominant, vile and aggressive, but the lesser threats, such as the seductive and hipnotic anaconda, Kaa, and the giant ape, King Louie, are much darker and more formidable as well.
The scene involving Kaa adds a new level of much needed backstory to the mix and actually brings us one of the darker moments in the film, both thematically and dramatically. It's a breathtakingly well done scene that strips away all of the comedic filler of the original and delivers us straight, white knuckle suspense. And then, of course, there's King Louie. Anybody who knows anything about — and appreciates — Christopher Walken will absolutely fall in love with King Louie. It also just so happens to feature some of the best art direction and attention to detail in the film.
The Jungle Book is a film that brings us a look at the harmony of the jungle, the loving relationship between friends and family and the struggles they face. Jon Favreau assembles an incredible all-star cast to lend their voices and back up young Neel Sethi, including Ben Kingsley as the benevloent panther, Bagheera; Idris Elba as the villanous tiger, Shere Khan; Scarlett Johansson as the vile snake, Kaa and Bill Murray who breaths new, creative life into the hungry, lazy yet loving and brave bear, Baloo. The film delivers justice to its source material and is a fun and visually stunning adventure for the whole family.
You can see The Jungle Book in theaters Friday, April 15th from Walt Disney Pictures.