A film review by Craig J. Koban April 23, 2016


2016, PG, 105 mins.


Neel Sethi as Mowgli  /  Bill Murray as Baloo (voice)  /  Ben Kingsley as Bagheera (voice)  /  Idris Elba as Shere Khan (voice)  /  Lupita Nyong'o as Raksha  /  Scarlett Johansson as Kaa (voice)  /  Christopher Walken as King Louie (voice)  /  Giancarlo Esposito as Akela (voice)  /  Emjay Anthony as Gray (voice)  /  Sara Arrington as Nilgai Mother

Directed by Jon Favreau  /  Written  by Justin Marks  /  Based on the work of Rudyard Kipling


Jon Favreau’s THE JUNGLE BOOK is arguably one of the greatest examples of a live action film fabricated from literal nothingness that I’ve ever seen.  

Calling this Disney adaptation of the company’s own beloved 1967 animated film (in turn, based on Rudyard Kipling’s collective literary works) a “live action film” is almost inaccurate.  Roughly 95-plus per cent of THE JUNGLE BOOK was created using bravura computer generated visual effects and there’s only one performer from the entire cast that appears in human form.  Like AVATAR and GRAVITY before it, THE JUNGLE BOOK is an unqualified marvel of technological movie making, featuring some of the most eerily realistic CG animals committed to the silver screen this side of LIFE OF PI.  Thankfully, Favreau and company also infuse the film with ample and relatable warmth, humor and heart…all of which are frequently absent from many contemporary effects driven blockbusters. 

Now, it could easily be argued that Disney’s incessant desire as of late to transform their beloved animated films of yesteryear into live action versions is an exercise in intellectual laziness.  There have been good examples (like last year’s jaw droppingly beautiful CINDERELLA) and some mournful duds (MALEFICENT), leaving me all the more reticent about approaching every new effort by Disney of going back to the creative well for ideas.  THE JUNGLE BOOK is an interesting case study, seeing as the property isn’t ostensibly a Disney one (even though everyone associates it with their 1960’s animated film) and that there have been previous attempts at live action versions (like the quite good, but mostly forgotten 1994 film with Jason Scott Lee).  Despite Kippling’s work having seen the light of day on screen numerous times before, Favreau manages to capture the frivolous sense of adventure and fun of the source material while having some legitimately compelling thematic material at its core as well.  That, and the fact that this JUNGLE BOOK inspires a sense of overwhelming awe and wonder in its miraculously realized sights is just icing on the cake. 



The story of this version will appease to devotees of the animated classic while judiciously sprinkling in new elements to make it stand apart from the pack.  A young and wide-eyed “man cub” named Mowgli (played by the exuberant and fresh faced newcomer Neel Sethi, the only aforementioned human presented in this entire film) resides in the Indian jungle, having been raised by a tribe of wolves, including his “parents” Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito).  Life in the jungle is a daily adventure for the precocious and always inquisitive Mowgli, made all the more enjoyable because most of the other animals around him and his family accept his presence with open arms.  One doesn’t, though, a sinister and dangerous tiger named Shere Khan (an impeccably cast Idris Elba), whose contempt for mankind in general has allowed for his easy hatred of Mowgli, whom he simply wants dead.  Realizing this new threat, Mowgli decides that it would be wise to turn himself in to human settlers, being assisted along the way by a congenial and wise panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and a rather selfish minded and honey obsessed, but easygoing bear named Baloo (the incomparable Bill Murray).  Mowgli does face new dangers along his trek in the form of the venomous-minded…snake…Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and the gangster-like Gigantopithecus King Louie (an unforgettable Christopher Walken) that wants to give Mowgli an offer he might not be able to refuse. 

No doubt, THE JUNGLE BOOK is simply one of 2016’s most exceptionally lush and gorgeous films.  I had to constantly remind myself that this movie was the product of shooting exclusively on L.A. based sound stages employing vast greenscreens substituted in for the jungle wilds of India, after which time the mavericks and geniuses of Weta Digital and the Moving Picture Company added their virtuoso computer tinkering to completely sell the effect.  As is the case when I watch any film utilizing extensive visual effects work, I subconsciously realized that everything I witnessed in THE JUNGLE BOOK (sans Mowgli) was indeed fake.  Yet, the film creates such lived-in, varied, and authentic looking environments for its young hero to populate that there was rarely a moment when I didn’t buy the illusion as being wholeheartedly real.  The largest triumph of the film is, yes, making the rich menagerie of jungle animals – that have to constantly engage with and carry conversations with Mowgli – feel as much of a natural presence in the film as Sethi himself.  Yes, the animals here aren’t real and, yes, they talk, but they’re all so painstakingly realized and so strikingly realistic that after a short time you simply forget that you’re baring witness to the most cutting edge effects ever attempted.  

What greatly assists the visual effects artisans here is the magnificently assembled voice cast that Favreau has gathered, all of whom give emotional weight, dramatic urgency, and, in some cases, comic relief to their respective animal characters.  Predictably, Murray is in his devilishly sly, deadpan comedic element here as his somewhat manipulative, but altogether loveable Baloo.  Kingsley’s level of typical performance gravitas lends itself resoundingly well to his Bagheera, and Johansson effortlessly embodies the sultry and seductive nature of her conniving Kaa.  Christopher Walken’s late appearance as King Louie might be the voice performance stand-out for me, lending his entertainingly peculiar and often imitated brand of dialogue delivery to his literally larger than life antagonist with a real gusto.  Lastly, Elba’s Shere Khan has such an intoxicatingly sinister allure whose own motivations for inflicting harm on Mowgli actually has some semblance of logic to them, which makes for a highly memorable and well rounded villain. 

This, of course, takes me to one surprising element of THE JUNGLE BOOK.  Favreau is obviously not completely infatuated with just eye-gasmic visuals here, but rather makes use of the astonishing filmmaking resources he’s equipped with to further the story’s intriguingly thoughtful themes.  THE JUNGLE BOOK is not just an innocuous children’s film replete with walking and talking animals designed for our simplistic amazement.  There’s an attempt here to envision a vaster ecosystem of animals that live by their own established rules and beliefs, which in turn breaks off into various factions separating the alpha apex predators apart from their vulnerable prey, only coming together to drink from a watering hole during “water truces.”  There are obvious hints of an environmentalist agenda at the heart of THE JUNGLE BOOK that thankfully doesn’t browbeat audience members young and old with too much forced and contrived obviousness.  The whole undercurrent that mankind and their ability to create fire (known as the “red flower” by animals) has led to the jungle’s water parched conditions – and, in turn, Shere Khan’s ultimatum that he’ll kill Mowgli at the end of the drought based on his association to his species – makes the dramatic stakes of THE JUNGLE BOOK all the more compellingly dire.  And maybe Khan has a point about humanity’s scorched earth tendencies and how they threaten the animal kingdom as a whole? 

There’s a lot going on in THE JUNGLE BOOK beyond its magnificently envisioned artifice.  Not only is it an exciting and frequently action packed fable, but the film still has time to comment on man’s abusive obsessions with nature and how youthful innocence is lost as a result of that.  There are a few issues that hold it back from achieving true greatness, like some of the songs from the 1967 original irregularly being thrown into the proceedings to distracting effect (they’re spirited and enjoyable, to be sure, but their inclusion here unnecessarily took me out of the moment of individual scenes).  Still, this live action re-imagining of an iconic Disney animated film is in a whole other league unto itself, bolstered by superlative voice work, mesmerizing set pieces, and magnificently engineered visual effects that masterfully work in concert with empowered storytelling while not overwhelming it.  The latter in particular is a decidedly hard feat to successfully pull off during these days of empty minded cinematic eye candy dominating the cineplexes, but THE JUNGLE BOOK audaciously and confidently seems equal to the task.    

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