The Jungle Book : As we approach the 50th anniversary of the initial release of the animated Disney classic, Rudyard Kipling’s enchanting tale of a boy raised by wolves is reimagined once more as The Jungle Book gets the mother of all facelifts in this luscious-looking adaptation. Iron Man director Jon Favreau is the man behind the camera and with the likes of Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray and Idris Elba in the recording booth, the film boasts one of the most star-studded voice casts seen in years.
Poor, sweet little man-cub… While the 1967 version of The Jungle Book has delighted multiple generations of children with its light-hearted, jovial nature and intoxicatingly catchy musical numbers, the entire tone of the film signaled a notable departure from the darker themes present in Kipling’s source material (something Walt Disney himself insisted upon). In this modern incarnation, however, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks have seen it fit to return to these more adult themes, underpinning Mowgli’s grand adventure with a continuing sense of peril that was largely amiss in the classic cartoon. This decision might well have distressed a number of unsuspecting parents with young children in cinemas, but there is no question the film is all the more engaging as a result, with the added sense of threat giving the plot considerably more weight and gravitas that it would not have had otherwise. The freedom to include these more intense moments also means that the man-eating tiger Shere Khan is far more Richard Parker (Life of Pi) than he is Tigger (Winnie the Pooh), carrying with him a sense of menace that will surely make him one of the most memorable villains 2016 has had to offer. All that said, there remains room plenty of laughs to stop things from getting overly bleak, and a couple of musical numbers do make their way into the script to simultaneously get the audience tapping their feet. This is a film that strikes a perfect balance between drama and pathos, tension and fun.
A sight for sore eyes. On more than one occasion this film has been referred to as the “live action Jungle Book” but, in fact, all of the visuals on show are completely computer-generated (aside from one Mowgli-sized Neel Sethi). You might not believe that on a first look, however. It becomes clear from the film’s first scene – a sprawling and frantic footrace through the jungle – that Disney have crafted something pretty incredible from a technical standpoint, and as the film introduces you to more of the jungle, from its sun-soaked rivers to gloopy canopies, you’ll have to constantly remind yourself that all of this was crafted in a Los Angeles studio and not shot on location in the heart of Indian rainforest. The animators also manage to bring to life each and every animal character, making them all look startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously giving them all mannerisms that help reflect their respective characters. Going for totally photorealistic creatures could have raised the issue of English-speaking animals looking totally ridiculous, which was a potential problem Favreau himself admitted could have arisen, but some clever framing and camerawork prevents this from becoming an issue. As with many animations with big-name stars, you might find yourself hearing the actor rather than the character at first, but before long the film becomes such a feast for the senses you can’t help but be sucked into the action. Irrespective of some conflicting opinions of the film as a whole, there is no denying that The Jungle Book is a total triumph from a visual standpoint, so much so that it might well be the most technically ground-breaking film since 2009’s Avatar.
New life in iconic characters. Thankfully, these iconic characters are not only brought to life through their beautiful rendering but also via some inspired casting too. Some of the choices feel like no-brainers in retrospect – Ben Kingsley as the wise Bagheera and Bill Murray as the fun-loving Baloo work just as well as you’d expect they would, whilst Idris Elba predictably continues his hot streak by bringing a real ferocity to Shere Khan – but some more unconventional choices should be applauded too. Having noted the lack of female characters in the ’67 film, Favreau and Marks made a conscious effort to change this, doing so by giving Lupita Nyong’o a platform to bring an emotive display to Mowgli’s surrogate wolf-mother Raksha, whilst Scarlett Johansson was also brought on board in the formerly male role of Kaa. After lending only her voice to her AI-character in Spike Jonze’s Her, Johansson proved then how much she could do with her vocal chords and the dreamlike sequence in which Kaa attempts to seduce Mowgli compliments the nature of her voice supremely well. Major kudos must also go out to young Neel Sethi as well, performing in his first ever motion picture alongside a series of hand puppets and blue screen props. Some have been critical of the quality of his acting but such comments seem overly harsh; for the most part, he delivers a performance that is awkward yet gutsy in equal measure, and the manner in which he moves around brings a physicality to Mowgli’s character that is reminiscent of his 50-year-old animated counterpart.