Let me begin by saying that this week’s featured film struck a particular chord with me. The Jungle Book has experienced many cinematic adaptations since the animated classic was introduced in 1967. My late father particularly favored Stephen Sommers’ 1994 version starring Jason Scott Lee, Lena Headley, Sam Neill, Cary Elwes, John Cleese and a beautiful collection of animal performers and I grew up watching that version on VHS.
Going into Jon Favreau’s adaptation, I had a general idea of what to expect in this incarnation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale about a man-cub dubbed Mowgli. Raised in the jungle by a pack of wolves and a dutiful guardian leopard Bagheera, Mowgli the man-cub is forced to abandon the only home he has ever known and the reason lies with a bloodthirsty, bully of a Bengal tiger named Shere Khan.
Shere Khan harbors deep resentment toward man because Mowgli’s father scarred and burned him in an attempt to defend himself and the big cat wants retribution by sinking his teeth into Mowgli and tearing him limb from limb, as he did with Mowgli’s father.
Bagheera sets out to take Mowgli to what the animals call the “Man Village” but their journey goes awry when Shere Khan splits them up and Mowgli falls under the watch of Baloo the bear, with whom he strikes a firm friendship with, but Khan sets events into motion that would ultimately pit him against his nemesis in a confrontation that would determine the future of the jungle for all creatures great and small.
This imaginative retelling of Kipling’s classic is essentially a live-action rendition of the animated classic, talking creatures and songs all, from “Bear Necessities” to “I Wanna Be Like You”. While there is an abundance of entertainment value for audiences to savor I found this new adaptation of The Jungle Book to be quite tame rather than fearsome.
I suppose I can say that I enjoyed the film but perhaps since I’m already so familiar with the Kipling’s classic and familiar with the film adaptations that came before, I feel that everything about The Jungle Book just felt entirely predictable to me. I knew the characters going in, Bagheera the panther, Baloo the Bear, Shere Khan the tiger, Kaa the python, Louie, King of the monkeys, Mowgli the man-cub, Raksha and Akela the wolves, and how the story would gradually progress from start to finish, so The Jungle Book didn’t exactly hold any surprises for me but that’s not to say it is a detracting quality. The film had its strong suits.
I felt that Jon Favreau jumped at the opportunity to bring the magic from the animated classic and apply 21st century film techniques to give the film a fresh start in the form of a lush and eye-popping live-action adaptation; if that was his goal than I guess you could say that he succeeded in that regard. Screenwriter Justin Marks played it safe with adapting Kipling’s tale; didn’t take any significant risks but came away with a satisfactory reward in keeping the core structure of The Jungle Book intact.
I’d say the strongest suit for The Jungle Book came in the form of the star-power giving life and personality to the animal characters. Be it Sir Ben Kingsley as the strict paternal panther in Bagheera, Bill Murray as cool uncle/bad influence Baloo the bear, Lupita Nyong’o as the maternal wolf in Raksha, Giancarlo Esposito as the alpha wolf Akela, Idris Elba as a bloodthirsty Bengal bully big cat in Shere Khan, Christopher Walken as the greedy orangutan in King Louie, Scarlett Johansson as the serpentine mesmerist Kaa, all of these actors were ideal fits for the animal figures they were lending their voices to and they all brought the best out of newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli, who did a fine job as the leading man-cub in the picture.
The visual effects were aces, I thought Bill Pope’s cinematography and the editing of Mark Livolsi were fine, the art direction team of Ravi Bansal, John Lord Booth III, Andrew L. Jones and Mark Stassi in tandem with the production design of Christopher Glass and Abhijeet Mazumder did a great job in crafting a jungle that is dark but beautiful.
I would best compare my screening of The Jungle Book to a trip to the zoo. I wasn’t particularly excited about anything even though going in, I knew what I was getting myself into, I knew what to expect and what was coming even though it hasn’t happened yet. Once I saw the signs I just knew what was coming, all of the characters, the motifs, the general direction of everything was practically laid out right in front of me and it was easy to read. The film is likeable and it is worth getting out to see but nothing registered for me on an emotional level enough to make me love the film as many probably will.