The Jungle Book (2016)

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Directed by Jon Favreau
Written by Justin Marks

Rated PG

Neel Sethi as Mowgli
Ben Kingsley as Bagheera
Bill Murray as Baloo
Idris Elba as Shere Khan
Lupita N’yongo as Raksha
Scarlett Johansson as Kaa
Giancarlo Esposito as Akela
Christopher Walken as King Louie
Garry Shandling as Ikki

Actor-director Jon Favreau’s triumphant interpretation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic story collection is a benchmark film in his career. He’s most famous for directing Elf, the first two Iron Man films, and 2014’s beloved independent hit Chef, but here Favreau shows he’s deft at making ambitious family fare. The film borrows many aspects from the 1967 animated classic, but it’s no remake. The sense of whimsy from the Disney cartoon is replaced with a more straightforward action slant.

The film opens with a thrilling chase through the jungle. Young man-cub Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi, a real find) is chastised by his friend and guardian, the black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley, authoritative and majestic) for using the ways of man over the rules of the wolf pack. We learn (or are reminded) that Bagheera brought Mowgli to Indian wolves Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita N’yongo, her second CGI performance since Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Force Awakens) after he found the boy orphaned and alone as an infant. The way Favreau flashes back to the origins is clever and surprising. Mowgli continues to try to fit in with his wolf pack family, and the film portrays this with realism and poignancy.

The backdrop symbolism of Kipling’s stories has always been the ecological balance of man’s relationship to animals and nature. It’s thrilling to watch the film with adult eyes, pondering the meaning and depth of the children’s story. Perhaps this is why many enduring children’s stories span generations in their longevity and affection among audiences, old and new. Kipling was under 30 when he wrote The Jungle Book, and its themes represent the wisdom of an adult who maintains a childlike connection to idealism and altruistic sensibilities.

As mentioned above, Favreau maintains Kipling’s slam-bang action story in the process. The film’s set-up establishes Mowgli’s place in the wolf pack, playing with his “siblings,” a recipient of Raksha’s maternal love and devotion. The young boy is a wide-eyed lover of nature, uncorrupted by man’s ambition, lust for control, and brutality. During the jungle’s dry season, all of the animals gather at the Peace Rock. It’s a time of equality and truce, as all disparate creatures may drink and hydrate themselves without the fear of being attacked by larger animals. However, the vengeful and imposing Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) arrives, and he declares the man-cub fair game as a target, since man is unwelcome in the jungle. The cruel Benghal tiger rationalizes man’s inhumanity, referencing his scarring and blindness, caused by man (though the man in question, we learn, was Mowgli’s natural father, and he was defending himself against Shere Khan, who eventually killed him anyway). Shere Khan declares that when the water truce ends and Peace Rock disappears, he intends to kill Mowgli.

The wolf pack convenes to discuss the potentially dangerous situation, but Mowgli bows out and offers to go to the “man village,” not wanting to see his wolf family subjected to threats of violence and terror by Shere Khan. While there an argument the tiger’s vengeance may seem justified, he is nonetheless a menacing and insidious predator. Shere Khan is a much more frightful threat here here than in the Disney cartoon. The source material of Kipling’s stories made known the menace of Shere Khan as well.

Mowgli is guided on his journey by Bagheera, but an unexpected interruption separates the duo. Soon, Mowgli meets the enigmatic Kaa (Scarlett Johansson, so convincing I was reminded of her superb vocal work in Her), and finally the lovable, buffoonish Himalayan brown bear Baloo (Bill Murray, a pitch-perfect casting choice in a film full of perfections). The bond between Mowgli and Baloo is as endearing and joyful here as it is in the cartoon (incidentally, Disney filmed another live-action version, released in 1994 – it’s unseen by me). Christopher Walken is effectively typecast as the monstrous orangutan, intent on Mowgli joining his tribe, to offer man’s gift of the “red flower,” the animals’ term for fire. The final scenes are potent action mixed with moving drama, bringing the story to a satisfying and well-earned conclusion.

Disney is on a roll with live-action adaptations of their animated classics. I enjoyed 2014’s Maleficent, despite it being an effects-heavy reimagining of the story (complete with a shift of the title character’s true nature, from evil to downright heroic and touching). I would not recommend last year’s miscast, overlong, and unmemorable Cinderella, but The Jungle Book – WOW – it’s a must-see. I have always enjoyed the animated version, and this live-action treat is a smashing addition to Disney’s film library.

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