Disney’s effort to adapt their classic animated stories into live-action adventures runs into an interesting problem. These more modern takes on the material lack the novelty of their predecessors, stepping on the toes of movies that defined childhoods. Ultimately, this isn’t a huge issue if the film is made well. But even quality adaptations live in this shadow. Last year’s Cinderella was a good movie, well made and well executed. But the first Cinderella you’ll ever think of still debuted over half a century ago. This time around, it seems Disney has finally cracked the code and broken the live action adaptation barrier between good and great. Maybe it’s partially because the original isn’t exactly a top five animated classic, but I consider this new Jungle Book to be Disney’s definitive version of the story.
You have to be a special kind of soulless to not like this movie. For starters, this is the most impressive use of special effects since Avatar, the movie that changed special effects forever. The Jungle Book takes the door that Life of Pi cracked open and blows it right off its hinges. While the former gave us a relatively small scale setting with one beautiful animal, this film creates a massive and luscious world filled with a variety of even more beautiful animals. The way each creature looks, moves and feels is stunningly realistic. To address the biggest risk of all, the moving lips could’ve been an absolute disaster. Making a CGI tiger run around is one thing, but giving him a monologue is an entirely different challenge. Not only are the supporting characters not ruined by this feature; it actually enhances their personalities. A potential disaster became just another accomplishment on this movie’s list.
Even the worst case scenario was looking pretty positive for this new Jungle Book. If everything else was terrible, it’d still be viewed as a memorable spectacle. Luckily for us moviegoers, everything else was just as good. This is the best cast assembled in a 2016 movie so far, and the newcomer Neel Sethi manages to successfully carry the greatest responsibility as Mowgli. His journey as an actor, surrounded by legendary talent, mirrors Mowgli’s journey alongside more powerful animals. Both find their place and thrive in an environment that should overwhelm them. Imagine an acting debut that’s completely surrounded by green screens and a few stuffed animals, having to form life-defining relationships with inanimate objects. In supporting roles, much like the animated movie, each character has times to shine as Mowgli moves on from one stage of his adventure to the next. For a lineup that includes Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Lupita Nyong’o, Christopher Walken and Scarlett Johansson, this step-by-step type of narrative works perfectly and gives each star his or her proper spotlight. Idris Elba manages to find a form more physically impressive and intimidating than his human one, and plays a great villain. Even the chemistry between these animals is spot on, which is highlighted by the bickering old couple dynamic between Baloo and Bagheera. We can also enjoy what is likely a final Garry Shandling performance, barring any delayed release I don’t know about, who was hilarious in a smaller role as the porcupine. Rest in peace, and (whispers) Hail Hydra.
Jon Favreau has proven himself to be an absolute genius and tone wizard. His ability to bring this CGI explosion to life without sacrificing an ounce of realism is the obvious accomplishment. But I’m still amazed by the seamless transition from brutal wolf murder to Bare Necessities. This movie was one Disney logo away from a PG-13 rating, with some surprisingly hard-hitting animal violence. It also has a wealth of humor and heart. None of these elements ever feel out of place, instead complimenting one another en route to an all around masterpiece. We knew they’d sneak in some cutesy whistling or a subtle tune to represent their big song, but I could not believe they actually incorporated two beginning to end musical numbers without breaking my immersion for a second. Turns out Christopher Walken talk-singing his way through a giant orangutan performance is exactly what you needed to see this weekend. The non Broadway-quality voices keep the songs from sounding ridiculous, instead playing as casual yet still catchy outbursts.
The Jungle Book is filled to the brim with strong messages that don’t need to punch you in the face to get the point across. Themes including family, being who you are, the journey to manhood, the dangers of mankind, and several others are all represented but never preached. The movie respects your intelligence as a viewer while telling a clear and effective story. There really isn’t a negative to attach to this movie unless you claim style over substance, completely ignoring the substance, or just cannot get into the Jungle Book premise at all. It was never my favorite animated movie, but this 2016 version brings something completely new to the table. Some of the storytelling gaps from the original are filled in with meaningful context and character development. This level of visual appeal, on top of Disney’s fundamental magic, creates a moviegoing experience that Walt Disney himself could’ve only dreamed of (and probably did) with more limited technology.
Some movies transcend great filmmaking and become great accomplishments. Films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy take concepts that simply should not work on screen and turn them into legendary works of art. This Jungle Book fits into that category. One inexperienced, unproven actor surrounded by CGI talking animals who occasionally break out into song should not work. But when the right director works with the right actors for the right company, a movie that shouldn’t work lands among the best you’ll see all year.