I’ll be the first to admit that the idea of Disney remaking all their classics as live action films seemed like something of a cash grab. Their first effort, Cinderella, proved to be rather charming but hardly revelatory. This year, the theatrical – and now home video – release of The Jungle Book showed that Disney really did have a very good idea.
Based on the Rudyard Kipling novel, the film tells the tale of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a boy orphaned as a baby and raised by wolves deep in the jungle. His mother Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) and father/pack leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) try to teach him the ways of the jungle and avoid reliance on his “man skills.” A drought hits the jungle, causing the animals, predators, and prey alike to forge a peace pact. This time heralds the return of the fearsome Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a tiger with a vendetta against man after an encounter with them resulted in his being burnt and blinded in one eye. He names Mowgli as a threat and vows that as soon as a truce is over he will return to kill the boy. To ensure the safety of his adoptive family, Mowgli decides to leave. Accompanied by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), he begins a journey to find his people, along the way encountering other inhabitants of the jungle, both friend and foe, with Shere Khan in pursuit.
Fans of the 1967 original will of course find familiarity in the tale, but this adaptation is somewhat darker in tone. Favreau incorporates some segments of the book that had no place in the animated classic, but still stays close to those Disney ideals. It remains a tale of an outsider, of bravery, of family and friendship, but with a little more texture. Favreau has already shown he can handle a visual spectacle (Iron Man) and something more heart warming (Elf), and he combines those two talents to great effect. He never strays too far from the emotional core of the film but gives the film plenty of time to bask in the breezy moments, effortlessly working in of two musical numbers from the ’67 version while never detracting from a tangible sense of danger.
Cinematographer Bill Pope and countless banks of computers have helped craft one of the most visually sublime features of the year. The Jungle Book is a stunning achievement. Photo-realistic locations and animals immerse you in the jungles of India. Avoiding the “uncanny-valley” phenomena is an applaudable feat in itself, but imbuing the “cast” with such expressive patterns of movement and facial responses is even more remarkable. It feels real, but there is something magical about what the film accomplishes.
Favreau assembled a hell of a cast to breathe life into these CGI-creatures. Sir Ben Kingsley brings a regal bearing to Bagheera, the seductive tones of Scarlett Johansson are a perfect fit for the snake Kaa, and Idris Elba matches the intimidating form of Shere Khan with his work, while Christopher Walken’s distinct voice makes the larger than life King Louie all the greater. Above all else, I could watch an entire movie featuring Bill Murray’s take on Baloo. The sole human in the film is portrayed by Neel Sethi, who does admirably in the circumstances, spending most of his time alone or with props against a green-screen. He’s a little snotty and a little stiff at times, but these aspects of the work can be put down to the filming circumstances and writing.
THE PACKAGEAs one of the best looking films of 2016, the Blu-ray release needed to do it justice, and thankfully it does. Each animal, whether the rough skin of an elephant, scales of a snake, or fur of a wolf, is rendered in stunning detail and texture. As are every leaf, rock, and drop of water. Colors are vibrant, blacks are deep. It’s a joy to watch.
Special features are pretty solid. The Jungle Book Reimagined has Favreau join with producer Brigham Taylor and visual effects supervisor Robert Legato to talk about how they approached adapting Rudyard Kipling’s original works as well as the Disney original. It also showcases a lot of the special effects that went into bringing the film to life as well as interviews with the cast. It’s a decent length at just over 35 minutes and offers a nice insight to the making of the film.
I Am Mowgli focuses on the audition process that found 12-year-old Neel Sethi. A open casting call, his relationship with Favreau, and how he dealt with the “green-screen” experience are all covered in his experience of portraying Mowgli. King Louie’s Temple: Layer by Layer is a three minute featurette showing how one of the film’s action/musical setpieces was put together. Finally, an Audio Commentary from Favreau himself proves to be a highlight, a refreshingly blunt and humorous insight into how the film was made. The release also includes a DVD and digital download copy of the film.
THE BOTTOM LINEThe Jungle Book combines stunning visuals with enthralling storytelling making for a wonderful adaptation of a beloved classic. A genuinely heartwarming and enthralling piece of filmmaking that stands out as one of the highlights of 2016.
The Jungle Book arrives on Digital HD August 23rd and on Blu-ray™ August 30th.