“So Kaa is now a girl,” “Nothing is real besides Mowgli” and “Great, another Disney classic getting the live-action treatment” – these were the main concerns after The Jungle Book dropped its first trailer last year. Of course, such cynism is to be expected in a film industry that's so chock-full of remakes and sequels, but in light of last year's successful live-action take on Cinderella, one would expect that Disney had earned itself some goodwill. After all, with such an impressive cast and crew, shunning this visually enhanced update of Rudyard Kipling’s seems a touch cruel. Now that the film itself has been unleashed in theaters, let’s just say this viewer was glad he listened to a certain bear and let go of his worries.
Nostalgia seems to be the fuel driving director Jon Favreau here, introducing the viewer with a quasi-2D Disney castle that soon gives way to the wilderness, along with John Debney’s elegant remake of the animated film’s hummable overture. Time traveling, in that brief moment, feels possible – a sensation that grows even starker as the voice of Bagheera (Sir Ben Kingsley) begins sharing his first encounter with what is currently rattling the trees: a brown-skinned boy in an orange loincloth.
Mowgli (Neel Sethi, wonderful presence in his screen debut) – or “man-cub” as the animals classify him – has just finished a hunting lesson with a wise, admiral-like black panther and returned to the wolf clan ruled by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) that he knows as family. After the sun sets and the Law of the Jungle is cited, the forest turns dry. The Peace Rock that lies beneath a pool is now visible. The Water Truce, which means predator and prey can together quench their thirst, is in effect.
By including details absent in the animated film, scriber Justin Marks freshens and brings new depth to this venture into the jungle that moviegoers fell in love with 49 years ago. He also darkens the tone of this Book, fusing it with the risk and peril the source material has and, presumably, a real jungle would have. Shere Khan’s (Idris Elba) warning for the animals harboring the man-cub is now downright menacing. Each tick in the countdown clock toward Mowgli’s demise has never been more audible. In every way, the screenplay is a step-up from Marks’ previous adaptation-effort, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li.
Contributing to the tangibility is the team behind Avatar, Digital Domain, whose work in Book creates the most gorgeous talking animals yet (and also this year’s earliest Oscar contender for VFX, maybe more). Together with Favreau’s approach, the populace retains their fearsome and feral qualities. And cinematographer Bill Pope does an outstanding job convincing the fully blue-screen world exists; seamlessly blending Sethi, the only flesh-and-bone character, with the beautiful, from-the-artists’-hands creatures.
As mentioned, Favreau has compiled a collection “all-ten” performers. Whenever a character speaks, immersion occurs and emotions surface; the pixels never had a chance to dilute the force of the actors and actresses, in particular Nyong’o and Elba. Their characters, Raksha and Shere Khan, have electricity in the way they let words roll off them, one that jolts the senses in a loving current or pure shock. Others deliver their vocal prowess as well as expected, and of course Murray and Walken do get to sing.
But here “Bear Necessities” and “I Wan’na to be Like You” feel out of place; their introductions forced and seem to have been featured as Disney’s way of reminding who boosted The Jungle Book’s popularity. Then again, it is nice to have a chance re-sing the tunes and have the speakers protect oneself from judging eyes. Even the python Kaa, although seductively voiced by Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin mode, has no need to be here. The “red flower” plot point she reveals, although crucial and majestically portrayed, could have been left to another character who has more than eight minutes of screen time.
But an hour and fifty-one minutes later, that is the only barren spot in a jungle that honors Kipling’s work (and Disney’s adaptation) to the fullest extent and translates it into the most visually lush film of 2016 so far. The wittily old-fashioned, vibrantly colored and realism defying ending musical number is worth the price of admission alone.