The Jungle Book.
We’re in an interesting time, in that two competing renditions of The Jungle Book are being released. Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Chef) is releasing the first, while the king of performance capture Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings, King Kong) is releasing the second. Well, the first one is here. Did it manage to impress?
Newcomer Neel Sethi stars as Mowgli, a human child who was raised by wolves (Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o) in the jungle. He is also watched over by a black panther by the name of Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). However things turn sideways when the evil tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) threatens to basically murder everyone unless they turn over the human boy. This triggers a journey for Mowgli to find his human village. Along the way, he befriends the bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and is under attack by large python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and large orangutan King Louie (Christopher Walken).
The most vital part of this film was its ability to create realistic animals, that somehow speak english, and make them seem like they’re really interacting with the one human character Mowgli. Luckily, they managed to not only do this, but managed to do it so well that this may be indeed the best performance capture I’ve ever seen. The animals look stunningly real and I would actually forget that Mowgli wasn’t actually talking to a panther or a bear or whatever. It is breathtakingly gorgeous and a true innovation.
I was also worried that the animals might look good… but then they talk? How would that work? Just relax, it worked perfectly. The voice casting was perfect, including Bill Murray and Ben Kingsley as the standouts.
And then there’s Shere Khan, voiced by Idris Elba. He may be one of the most impressive villains I’ve seen on screen lately. They managed to make him look like a real tiger, but give him scars and characteristics that really make him look terrifying. And Elba’s voice was perfect, stealing the show every time he spoke.
And just when I thought, there’s no way this movie can get any better…
We meet King Louie, a gargantuan orangutan who desires to be more like man, which (in this movie) centers around wanting to get access to fire. King Louie is daunting and gigantic and terrifying, culminating in an incredible action setpiece that is simultaneously gorgeous and suspenseful. And Christopher Walken was perfect, including a new version of “I Wanna Be Like You” that isn’t quite as peppy but still really fun.
The movie is also surprisingly funny, usually due to a wide arrangement of strange creatures and animals that live in the jungle alongside our main characters. They all have distinct personalities and are absolutely a joy to watch.
What doesn’t work?
The only single scene in the entire movie that left me a little confused, and only in retrospect, was Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa, a hypnotic snake who finds Mowgli in the jungle. I didn’t mind Johansson’s performance but the inclusion of Kaa felt strange. I don’t remember the Disney cartoon much, so maybe it was true there too, but she’s only in one scene and her only role is exposition to give some backstory. Necessary? Maybe. But in looking back, I wished they had brought her back or done something to make that scene feel like it mattered a little more. Minor complaint.
They did it. Somehow they managed to create an entirely CGI jungle, never once shot in a real outdoor location, and they filled it with entirely CGI animals, that somehow spoke English… and it all worked. A first time actor who had to act against tennis balls and green screens but he delivers an incredible performance and the movie as a whole is mind-blowing. On a technical level, this is a masterpiece. On an emotional level, I found The Jungle Book to be gripping and compelling and full of rich characters. I wasn’t expecting this movie to be great but I’m absolutely glad that it is. A must see on the big screen.