Review: The Jungle Book
Mine is the childhood this movie seeks to rekindle. I grew up loving these characters, with their songs and parables. Mowgli and Baloo have always lived in my head as animated beings, so seeing them in this new CGI form felt like a fresh take on the very familiar. And while this digital world Jon Favreau has created is irresistibly beautiful, I couldn't help feeling like all of its ambition was in the 1s and 0s that created the imagery rather than in the storytelling itself.
The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli (played well by Neel Sethi) and the various creatures he meets while living in the jungle. Mowgli was raised by wolves who adopted him after his father was killed. These wolves seek to protect him from any threats that may arise. The main threat comes from Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba), a tiger who decides he does not like that there is a "man cub" in the jungle. Shere Khan is mistrustful of man because his past, which offers the films strongest theme, that man is a destructive force not to be trusted.
Along the way, Mowgli meets lots of animals, who are all voiced by amazing actors. His adopted mother is Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o), he is guided by a black panther named Bagheera (voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley), he is threatened by a snake named Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and becomes fast friends with a large lovable bear in Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray). But Christopher Walken may be the standout in this top-notch cast. He voices King Louie, a giant ape with his own kingdom, and provides larger than life scene-stealing work.
The magic of the movie is in watching Mowgli interact with an all-digital world. He touches characters that are not really there and faces danger borne out of a computer program. This surreal straddling of the line between the real and not real is something to behold, but it is used best when challenging the conception of what makes a man. The tension between man's ingenuity and his destructive nature is the crux of the film's moral question. Can man coexist with nature without disrupting it? The most interesting moments are those where nature realizes the power of man and seeks to harness it.
The animal characters are constantly referring to the "red flower" or fire, which only man can wield and control. To them, this is the essence of what makes man. This is the thing that separates them. In the end, it is a combination of ingenuity and destructiveness that makes man what he is. At various points, Mowgli struggles with his own cleverness and whether to suppress or embrace it. in this way, the film touches on other themes like being something other than what you are or "covering," but it seemed less interested in fully-developing these than it was in its visual elements.
Overall, I am not sure what the perfect audience is for this film. The limited number of songs and the intense look of the animals makes it a tough sell for very young children, while it's missing the thematic complexity that sometimes makes Disney films appeal to adults. If there is a compelling reason to see it, it is the other-worldly CGI and glorious spectacle Favreau has crafted. From the unbelievably cute wolf cubs, to the breathtaking time lapse images, it is a sight to behold from beginning to end. It has heart, it has themes, it has story, but perhaps it could have done with a bit more of each.
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