The Jungle Book is a coming-of-age tale about a hero born where he doesn't belong. It pivots from frantic action sequences, to heartfelt pauses, to charming banter among the denizens of the titular forest. It's wondrous and enchanting. It is a thrilling adventure for children, but it contains mature insight as well.
This is a retelling of Disney's 1967 musical masterpiece, the last film Walt Disney oversaw before his death a year later. Director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks return to the world beneath the canopy, weaving a story of acceptance and tolerance with modern technology that allows for a colorful journey through a tried-and-true setting.
At its heart, it's a children's film, and in that respect, it excels. It carries young protagonist Mowgli (Neel Sethi) away from the comforts of his home, instilling wonder with soaring temples, introducing him to characters as deep and mythic as they are endearing and kind. He's a hero in his own mind, helping the jungle's inhabitants with small favors and acts of kindness. He seems inherently good.
For all of The Jungle Book's innocence and sun-streaked patches of ground, however, there are shadows here, too. It takes several turns into the sinister, offering up images of terror and death that may come as a shock to adults, and a genuine scare to viewers on the younger side. In fact, these tonal shifts often seem out of place in the grander scheme of things. The tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) is a violent force of nature intent on exposing the dark current flowing under the jungle foliage.
Most of the time, though, The Jungle Book jumps between its poles with skill and finesse. Cinematographer Bill Pope portrays Mowgli's world as a place where safety is one snapping branch from falling into danger. Deft action sequences follow Mowgli over the jungle floor and through the branches of ancient trees, careening behind him as he swings between vines in the company of his familial wolf pack. The camera pans through colorful reeds, obscuring a lurking threat as Mowgli falls into a stampede straight out of The Lion King. The Jungle Book is shot to be a visual delight, and it also allows us to travel with the story between comfort and conflict.
Surrounding Mowgli is a cast of characters wearing the many faces of the wild: the alpha wolf Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), the wise panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), the reclusive orangutan King Louie (Christopher Walken). You'd be forgiven for mistaking these CGI characters for the real thing at times, if it weren't for the actors' voices emitting from anthropomorphized mouths.
The Jungle Book has a veteran voice-acting cast, but the film doesn't utilize these actors as a mere list of sellable names: it plays to their strengths, elevating the story and making it all the more engrossing. Elba in particular casts a villainous pallor with his looming bass tones. And Bill Murray, an actor with comic talent often misunderstood by lesser directors, dons the thick coat of Baloo the Bear, whose blend of comic relief and dramatic tension is fine-tuned. He delivers some of the film's most amicable observations and momentous roars. The Jungle Book is commendable in the way it shifts from comedy to drama and back again.
The Jungle Book is exceptional for the way it shifts from comedy to drama and back again.
Favreau, Marks, and hundreds of crew members have created an inviting world for these characters to live in, despite the dangers we see out of the corners of our eyes. Its streams trickle over weathered stones. We see the frogs and the dew and the drooping ferns. We hear legends about the elephants, who created the jungle with their massive tusks, content to roam its confines as the years move slowly on. Mowgli and his friends inhabit a world that existed long before we came upon it. That it's been realized in such detail makes the film worth seeing on its own. It lets us suspend our disbelief from the start.
It's worth asking: why the remake? Why now? Upon their return to Mowgli's story, Favreau and company have adopted a more optimistic worldview, albeit one with its share of lessons. The jungle is at peace when the young human and nature co-exist. Mowgli makes use of the jungle without destroying it. Animals help him, and he returns the favor. So what if he walks on two legs and wears a loin cloth? He runs with the wolves and can speak their language, too.
The tiger Shere Khan doesn't see this. He takes the child at face value, and blames him for the wrongs his ancestors committed--Mowgli is a human, and he must go. Any violence in this world is a result of intolerance and an unwillingness to empathize. The story is at once a youthful adventure and a mature allegory, and that's a hard line to straddle. The Jungle Book handles it with expert care.
Sethi and Murray deliver one of the film's most poignant scenes. Murray's Baloo floats downriver on his back, singing the classic tune "Bare Necessities" while Mowgli drums playfully on the bear's soft stomach. It's an allusion for fans of the 1967 original, and a touching moment for newcomers as well. The Jungle Book finds balance throughout, and this scene is no different. It's a microcosm of the film's blend of adventurous aims and storytelling vigor.
I'm reminded of the fable of the scorpion and the frog, in which the former asks the frog for passage across a river. The frog expresses concern that the scorpion will sting him. "But then we would both drown," the scorpion says. So the frog relents, carrying the scorpion toward the other shore, until midway, the sting occurs. Dying and sinking, the frog asks the scorpion, "Why?" And the scorpion says, "It's in my nature."
If this new Mowgli were to retell it, I imagine both would arrive at the opposite shore. And that's well worth the return to the jungle.