What Disney’s original 1967 animated classic The Jungle Book lacked within its bubbly psyche was a deep sense of vulnerability and darkness for its human protagonist Mowgli, perhaps an unthinkable inclusion in a family movie at the time. In Jon Favreau’s live-action update of the joyous sing-along classic, the Iron Man director pits young Mowgli – played excellently and with exceeding charm by Neel Sethi – against the forces of nature as an outcast while simultaneously reminding the youngling – and the audience – of his legacy he’s destined to fulfill as a destructive man.
The setting of this update is amongst the most palpable and harshest of conditions: a dried-up and dying jungle plagued by detrimental droughts. A tacit truce amongst the animal kingdom is marked by a rock at the edge of a sapped riverbed, where creatures of all diets – carnivorous and herbivorous – set aside their differences to survive in a deteriorating environment in a wholly idealistic rejection of Darwinian hierarchy for survival.
It’s at this very waterhole that Mowgli’s “manliness” comes face-to-face with the rest of the jungle where he’s subject to whispered comments and supercilious glances. Mowgli’s destiny as a “mancub” – as he’s referred – is of a violent and tumultuous image within the animal world that grows increasingly difficult to overlook as he grows up. There’s a negative connotation attached to the word “man” and despite his attempts to fit in, Mowgli exhibits a crafty and intuitive advantage to create that alienates him from the rest. His craftiness is the antithesis to his future legacy as a man that destroys, but in some way that same power to create yields a potential of creating tools of destruction.
Nevertheless, his ability is uncanny, building what he can to ease his life and solve problems. However, this craftiness goes scrutinized among the animal world like when he builds a water bowl on a leafy rope, an unwittingly condescending and alienating contraption that reminds the animal world of humanity’s seeming superiority. To his adoptive wolf parents chagrin – Akela (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) – Mowgli has to be reminded that this way – his way – is not the wolf way and is an admonishment of his roots as a progenitor of man.
This is also where Shere Khan (Idris Elba) makes his predilections against Mowgli begrudgingly apparent; Mowgli simply does not belong. Shere Khan’s scarred and gnarled face was the result of man and his destructive “red flower,” the animal namesake for fire. But it’s not enough for Khan that Mowgli leave the jungle, Shere Khan simply wants him dead for the sins of man. With real danger at hand, Mowgli’s panther mentor and guardian Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) is tasked with escorting him to a man village to avoid the predatory Khan.
On all fronts The Jungle Book is a darker adaptation of the 1960s animated film featuring a grim setting with a monumental dilemma and identity crisis for its protagonist. Unlike its predecessor there is a real presence of danger and menace. This is a jungle where droughts, flash floods, vicious predators, and even humans are a real threat. The film’s grim and dark view of a Darwinist world sets the stage and precedence for the forces of nature at odds with the force of humankind as represented by Mowgli’s character.
Despite a tone some may find cynical, the film does manage to include a few moments of what would normally be Disney mawkishness. Yet even these come off as genuine thanks in part to Favreau’s attentive and reserved direction. One scene in particular sees Mowgli saving a baby elephant from a pit using the jungle to craft a pulley system; it’s warm and touching, a reminder of humanity’s ability to exhibit gentleness. The nearly silhouette images paint a dark world that displays a fleeting potential for poignant moments of survival and hope.
That scene is revealing of Jon Favreau’s fantastic vision in directing and adapting this new version of The Jungle Book. Moments of torrential storms, earth-pounding stampedes, and ferocious feline battles are punctuated with tenderness and non-pontificating and reflective life-lessons. Amid the film’s cynicism there’s still plenty for children and families to to enjoy, never allowing the darkness to fully overwhelm the film.
More than anything, it’s the characters that help shine light in the jungle’s darkness. Neel Sethi as Mowgli owns the film with his portrayal of a charming young boy in this animalistic world. The voice acting is above par with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Bill Murray as Mowgli’s latter half companion Baloo is a match made in heaven, and who else to portray the laidback bear than one of Hollywood’s most-beloved laidback comedy actors? Murray breathes life into the film with his appearance and Murray’s comically attuned performance.
The villains, of course, get special mention, with Idris Elba a real standout with his menacing and convincing Shere Khan, a vicious creature as dangerous and spiteful as any man that Khan warns about. Christopher Walken as King Louis is a strange choice but as time passes you find ease in accepting his thuggish portrayal of the grandiose orangutan. Kaa the snake, no longer comic relief, is voiced by the seductive Scarlett Johansson and what better choice to portray the hypnotizing and alluring python?
The Jungle Book is the polar opposite of it’s animated predecessor, one that contrasts nicely with the bubbly and colorful nature of the original Disney classic. Nonetheless, this live-action update from Favreau is gorgeously realized and a visually stunning take on a classic film that masterfully blends the dark and light with ambitious fortitude. The film’s heart is bigger than its impressive CG, standing apart as less a spectacle and more a lofty character driven work that deservedly pays off.