Sometimes, when watching a movie that came out years ago, you chuckle at how hokey the special effects look and how spectacular you thought they were at the time. I don’t think we’ll be doing that in years to come when we go back and watch The Jungle Book.
Neel Sethi plays Mowgli and is pretty much the only human we see on screen for the whole movie. The animals are voiced by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Sir Ben Kingsley plays the wise old panther Bagheera, Bill Murray is the big, friendly bear Baloo, Lupita Nyong’o is Mowgli’s adoptive wolf mother Raksha, and Idris Elba is menacing as Shere Khan. Despite a cast full of recognizable voices, the animals are so brilliantly generated you don’t even realized that you’ve suspended your disbelief enough to believe you’re actually watching a talking panther.
Sethi must have spent a lot of time in front of green screens on the set, but his performance is convincing, and the relationships between him and each of the animal characters are well established.
The movie, of course, is based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling and hit the big screen as a beloved traditionally animated Disney movie in 1967. One of the most memorable things about that version was the musical numbers, especially The Bare Necessities, which kids have been singing ever since. It’s so popular, and so associated with The Jungle Book, that it should be no surprise Jon Favreau shoehorned it into this version. But at least it’s a fun scene, even if it’s not entirely clear how Mowgli would have learned the song in such a short time with Baloo.
But if The Bare Necessities is shoehorned, then King Louie’s I Wanna Be Like You is absolutely forced. King Louie is voiced by Christopher Walken, and Favreau has somehow managed to give him Walken’s unmistakable eyes and expressions. In the 1967 animated version, King Louie was an orangutan. But for this live action movie, Favreau has made him a Gigantopithecus, a pre-historic 10-foot tall ancestor of the orangutan that weighed 1,000 pounds and went extinct 10,000 years ago in India.
This is a huge creature, bigger than King Kong. The reveal of King Louie is an unmistakable homage to Apocalypse Now. He is a crazy, powerful giant surrounded by his followers deep inside a dark temple in the jungle. But that entrancing sense of menace builds until … King Louie breaks out into song. I think that fun and silliness is intended as a bit of comic relief, but the world of these talking animals is so wonderfully rendered and all-encompassing, it’s one of the few times in the movie where you’re jarred back to reality and realize what you’re watching isn’t really there.
Overall, The Jungle Book is an achievement. It has something to appeal to everyone and solidifies Jon Favreau’s status as a versatile director capable of making artistically impressive movies that also happen to be blockbusters.