The Jungle Book review: More Mowgli, more special effects, more heart
The Jungle Book movie review
Cast: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong’o
Director: Jon Favreau
Somewhere in downtown Los Angeles, there is a deep, dark jungle where a boy called Mowgli lives among animals. The animals themselves speak in menacing tones of Idris Elba, hold you under their spell in the sultry voice of Scarlett Johansson and sing exactly like Bill Murray. (If you are planning to watch the film in Hindi, make it Priyanka Chopra, Irrfan Khan and Nana Patekar). Probably they got coaching from director Jon Favreau on how to emote for the camera, or maybe they are just natural.
Before you think I have taken leave of my senses while writing The Jungle Book movie review, here’s the gist: The film is great but the CGI is even greater. Neel Sethi’s Mowgli may be the only living, breathing entity in this live action-CGI stew but you would consider Bagheera, Baloo, Shere Khan and party equally real by the time the show’s over.
Favreau and his team of tech wizards don’t just give you CGI for the heck of it, they make it an integral part of the storytelling. This film would never have been the same without the present day technology and it can only be compared with, say, Avatar. The film is an eye-popping spectacle where the jungle breathes and animals emote with their eyes. The wizardry is overwhelmingly successful in the portrayal of the animals. They are so real – from the way they talk to their loping, sinuous walk to even their eyes – that you eventually forget that some graphic artist just made them up.
Just like the animals, the director turns jungle into a place of fear and, yet, home. From a burst of sunlight and colour in its happy moments, it seamlessly turns into a mist-filled horror with predators lurking at every corner when the mood takes it. Every little detail in this film is rendered with such precision and love that though dangerous, it has enough joie de vivre to carry you along.
The story of the film mostly is true to Rudyard Kipling’s timeless tale – abandoned ‘man-cub’ Mowgli was found by the wise panther Bagheera years ago. He brought the child to a pack of wolves which is headed by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and mother wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) brings him up with her other cubs.
Dry season approaches and a water truce is called. As all animals drink at the river together, battle-scarred tiger Shere Khan demands that the man-cub should be given up as per law of the jungle. He makes it clear that he will attack the wolves if Mowgli doesn’t become his lunch. To save Mowgli, Bagheera decided to take him to the village where humans live. On the way, Mowgli will meet the laidback bear Baloo, the mysterious serpent Kaa and gigantopithecus (not orangutan) King Louie.
The voice work is excellent all around. We hear Shere Khan before we see him and Elba brings an air of menace to the film. Khan is enjoying his cruelty and the actor shows it. Villain of the year, anyone? Ben Kingsley’s Bagheera, also the narrator, is a statesman-like figure, Mowgli’s father figure and the voice of sense. But the real winner is Murray’s Baloo. A slacker who is not above a bit of lying if it can get the job done, Baloo is the story’s comic relief. His relationship with Mowgli gives the film its heart and Favreau lets it breathe. The fact that he gets the film’s best dialogues also helps.
The duo also gets to sing the classic Bare Necessities together and that itself justifies the price of the ticket. The shaggy ambling sloth bear is a perfect fit for Murray and Murray’s lazy dialogue-delivery is a perfect fit for Baloo. All in all, a casting choice made in heaven.
That brings us to Neel Sethi, our Mowgli and a difficult find if the director is to be believed. The Indian American boy has a natural screen presence and brings an infectious energy to the role. He does particularly well in the action scenes – running towards or away from danger. He does rush through his lines at places but then, the boy was basically acting opposite tennis balls.
Scarlett Johansson and Christopher Walken are stupendous in their roles and we would have loved to see more of them, especially Johansson’s hypnotic Kaa.
So, how does it measure up to The Jungle Book versions we have seen till now – the Disney film made almost 50 years ago and the classic anime show on Doordarshan in the 90’s? It matches up. The tone may be different and it may be edgier, but at heart The Jungle Book is still an adventure and a coming-of-age tale. Favreau gives us that sense of wonder, something we so desperately desire in these days of one franchise too many. The fact that he manages to do it in a story we all know so well is remarkable.
And if you are a kid who grew up in the 90’s in India and are missing the ‘Chaddi pehen ke phool khila hai’ track, Disney took care of that too with this new-age anthem...
However, a word of caution, do take your children but prepare them for some awe and shock. I hate to break it to you but Pahlaj Nihalani may be a teeny weeny bit right when he said that young children may get scared at some points during the film. The Jungle Book is no longer cute and cuddly but a tale of survival. This time, it really is a jungle out there. But I can guarantee one thing, once you and your children do enter it, you would not want to leave.
Watch The Jungle Book’s trailer here