Man is in the forest. One night, deep in an Indian jungle, a father and son huddle together in a cave, lit by a roaring fire. A Bengal tiger called Shere Khan, undeterred by the glowing “red flower,” enters the cave and slaughters the father, getting badly burned in the process. As he flees to tend to his wounds, he fails to realize that the dead man’s son—an infant “man cub”—is still alive, and wandering the jungle. When the tiger learns of the boy’s survival, he vows to kill him.
These are the events that set The Jungle Book, director Jon Favreau’s astonishing visual and storytelling accomplishment, into motion. They’re seen in flashback, which is substantial improvement upon Disney’s first pass at this Rudyard Kipling story—the classic 1967 animated film, referenced in Favreau’s film in a myriad of clever ways. In the 1967 film, the man cub Mowgli is simply discovered in a basket, like Moses. And while that kind of take-it-from-us storytelling might have worked on 1960s audiences, I’ve always wondered, having never read the book: Who in the hell does that? Just leaves their kid in the jungle, tra-la-la? Did his parents forget? Now we know.
The script for Favreau’s Jungle Book was written by Justin Marks—whose only other produced film, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. And yet, together, these two man-cubs have done what I previously thought impossible: They have improved on Walt Disney’s storytelling. Gone are the silly storytelling cul-de-sacs of the original film (the mop-topped vultures stand out in my mind); and many of the minor characters of the original film are given new, urgent purpose: The elephant pack now serves a storytelling need, and the wolf pack that raised Mowgli doesn’t disappear after the film’s first few minutes. In this jungle, everyone works. And the story they serve to support has real weight and pathos.
(That isn’t to say the film doesn’t have funny moments; it does. And Favreau skillfully manages to incorporate the musical elements of the original film, including several of Richard and Robert B. Sherman’s songs, among them “I Wan’na Be Like You” and “Trust in Me.” And yes, Terry Glikyson’s “The Bare Necessities” is in there, too.)
Now, I wanted to tell you how good the storytelling was before I told you the other, obvious thing: This movie is gorgeous. Favreau has demonstrated time and again that he has a sure hand with a crowd-pleaser, but Jungle Book proves him an auteur. Using nothing but soundstages and CGI, he’s built a green world from scratch, one that makes the landscapes of Avatar look slapdash and cheap. (I don’t often say this, but you should spring for the 3-D; this is one of the rare cases where it benefits the film.)
And the animals inhabiting that jungle are exquisitely rendered, as well—to the point where you almost immediately stop focusing on the computer animation and begin dissecting the performances. Favreau has assembled a rock-solid voice cast that includes Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johannson, Ben Kingsley, Lupita Nyong’o, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito and even the late Garry Shandling. And he captures the finest parts of their individual styles—Kingsley’s regal bearing, Murray’s perfect sad-sack expression—and transfers them to the faces of panthers and sloth bears, without losing their animal primacy.
By the way, there’s only one “real” constant in the film—actor Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli. The whole thing could fall apart if the kid wasn’t good (see Star Wars: The Phantom Menace), but Sethi delivers a solidly likeable performance—one which is all the more remarkable because he gave it not in a jungle, but in a studio in the heart of Los Angeles. We live in a new world, now, and Sethi—with Favreau’s help—has led us to it.
The Jungle Book (PG): ★★★★★