Is it okay to be on team Shere Khan?
THE JUNGLE BOOK is a wonder to behold. It takes place entirely in the Indian jungle, yet it was filmed in a downtown Los Angeles warehouse. Think about that for a second. The world that director Jon Favreau has created is completely immersive. The trees sway, the blades of grass bend, the pools of water succumb to the animals that breach it. It truly is a spectacle what’s been created on screen.
Most impressive is the design of the animals that occupy the world. Just thinking of the work the animators must have put into it is exhausting. The creatures speak* and their mouths move, but they’re never human-like. And when Baloo and Bagheera are lumbering and leaping lithely through the plants, you’ll swear that you’re watching a real bear and panther. The actors who portray their animal counterparts all went through motion capture, though any facial recognition falls short, save for perhaps Louie the orangutan, where you can catch the tiniest bit of acknowledgment of Christopher Walken’s features. This is a good thing, mind you. As the environment pulls you in, the last thing you want is to be reminded that you’re looking at famous people voicing animals.
*Strangely enough, the one omission to the speaking population are the monkeys. Other than Louie, all his minions speak in the familiar screeches and yelps; never once do they voice a coherent word. It’s a small contrast that ultimately has no bearing on the story, but it is an odd decision to give the power of speech to small mice and a porcupine (a sad smile for the late, great Garry Shandling), yet not humans’ closest relative.
JUNGLE essentially follows the original animated Disney film from 1967. Mowgli is abandoned in the jungle and found by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), who soon brings him to live with the wolf pack as one of their own. Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) act as Mowgli’s parents, and there are some truly emotional moments when Raksha calls Mowgli her son.
In what I believe is a modern plot point, the Peace Rock (an ordinary looking boulder, normally found at the bottom of a lake) appears during the dry season. When this happens, the jungle law decrees that a truce between all animals transpires and they all assemble to drink and enjoy their brief serenity. Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a bengal tiger, arrives and immediately threatens Mowgli, stating man can’t be trusted and the only way that the jungle will be safe is if he dies.
This conflict basically sets the tone for the remainder of the film. Khan’s worry is that Mowgli will eventually create the “red flower”–the animals’ name for fire–, and the story about man and their destructive nature is quickly recapped. I’m not saying that I want a tiger to maul a small child, but you have to admit that it’s a legitimate concern. It’s a good thing animals don’t have access to the internet or we humans as a species would be in big trouble. Just the threat of fire alone, never mind the massive deforestation, and loss of life from poaching, and, well, maybe Khan, though overzealous in his approach, may have a argument.
It’s decided that Mowgli would benefit from finally living amongst his fellow humans. On the way he meets the familiar cast of characters. He is briefly snared by Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), a massive boa constrictor. Kaa being female is a change from every other edition, and Johansson’s voice is perfect, the exact amount of hypnotic sultriness. Baloo the bear’s laissez-faire attitude matches perfectly with Bill Murray’s voice. He and Mowgli have a great rapport. He teaches the boy that there’s nothing wrong with being yourself.
Neel Sethi as Mowgli has the toughest task. It’s his first film and he had to act against building walls and green screens. Fail with Mowgli and the entire movie falters, but he does really well. Mowgli and Baloo do a brief rendition of “The Bare Necessities”–it’s one of two songs. The second is Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You,” and it’s a little bit of a misstep. Favreau made a concerted effort to have his edition of JUNGLE to be more serious, a move that succeeds. (There are actually some pretty jumpy moments throughout.) I feel like they had Christopher Walken on set and thought it would be a good idea to have him sing. I could have done without any musical numbers, especially since all of the favorites are sung by the cast during the closing credits.
Still, this is a small objection in an almost flawless movie experience. I can’t speak highly enough about how beautiful it looks on screen. The interactions that Mowgli shares with his four-legged kin (Shere Khan looks ferocious) will make you believe in the world you’ve been transported to. I don’t blame the man-cub for not wanting to leave.