The Jungle Book is a New Chapter in Cinematic Enchantment

Disney-The-Jungle-Book-Jon-Favreau1‘Filmed in downtown Los Angeles’ is one of the final credits that rolls past at the close of The Jungle Book. When not completely in awe of The Jungle Book, spare moments will be spent puzzling over how they achieved maximum foliage. Of course, the answer lies in the seemingly endless number of names trickling by before the L.A. humblebrag, and the simple answer is: a computer. If you scrutinise the credits, you’ll see Jim Henson Creature Shop artists, zookeepers and motion capture performers alongside the regular line-up of crew members. The Jungle Book could have easily ended with the Intel Inside logo on screen to justify the most cynical approach to this film as a river cruise through uncanny valley but director Jon Favreau has enriched this adaptation of Disney’s 1967 animated version of The Jungle Book (based on Rudyard Kipling’s novel) with modern movie magic operating at full capacity.

An orphan boy, Mowgli (Neel Sethi), is raised by a pack of wolves after being found by a panther, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). A tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), wants Mowgli out of the jungle and demands the wolves turn the boy over to be dispensed. Bagheera decides to defy Shere Khan by taking Mowgli back to a local village but they get separated and Mowgli encounters a colossal snake, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson); a breezy bear, Baloo (Billy Murray); and a kingpin orangutan, Louie (Christopher Walken).

War is declared between the left and right of your brain in the opening moments of The Jungle Book as Mowgli runs with the pack through a dazzling lush jungle as the camera swoops in from every direction while still maintaining the coherency of an intricately crafted chase sequence—Favreau shows his flair for action throughout The Jungle Book. Every intricate detail of the jungle and the animals has a photorealistic quality but there’s a fantastical blur, a fairy-tale tinge that makes the environments of The Jungle Book entrancing. When they shot the pilot for Sesame Street they kept the Muppets separate from the human performers because they worried children wouldn’t learn anything as research at the time showed kids had trouble distinguishing the difference between reality and fantasy. After a lukewarm response from children to this method after a test screening, the creators of Sesame Street realised they needed to have Muppets and actors interacting for the show to have potency, and the rest is history. The Jungle Book uses the same methodology because Favreau makes the jungle feel real, but not too real. It’s important for the world of The Jungle Book to feel alive but it’s still dreamlike enough to allow for escapism. The presence of the only live-action performer visible, Sethi, helps to aid the immersion and The Jungle Book avoids the cold distancing effects heavy productions often cause. With talking animals, The Jungle Book is a more muscular version of Babe crossed with the dynamic blend of live-action and digital effects of the Wachowski Sisters’ Speed Racer, George Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road and Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Few may decry this as putting a dent in the craft of filmmaking by giving so much responsibility to a hard drive, but there is too much damn heart in the The Jungle Book, and it’s an example of what happens when these tools are placed in the right hands, and there are lots of limbs at work putting The Jungle Book together, it feels like the next shift forward in digital effects filmmaking—nudged a little by Ang Lee’s Life of Pi—that Jurassic Park amplified by showing the power of digital effects wizardry in harmony with a master storyteller.

The wondrous approach also allows Favreau to organically weave in the music from the 67′ animated version in a way that not forced for the sake of pleasing the ghost of Walt Disney. Sometimes they’re like Easter eggs, Baloo’s Bear Necessities is like an improvisational jazz number that’s joyous; while King Louie’s I Wanna Be Like You is more of a traditional movie musical number yet Walken delivers one of his most Walken-esque performances (this is more scat jazz) that makes it transcendent. The whole voice cast are matched perfectly with their characters: Baloo has all the casual swagger of Murray that lends itself to the bear’s status as a jungle slacker; Elba makes Shere Khan terrifying with his guttural threats (here’s hoping the actor leans into his bad side more with future roles); and Kingsley brings nobility to the sleekest jungle cat. Balancing it all out is Sethi, who has enough pep as a kid actor for younger audiences to project onto (there’s no denying this is what Disney wants) but he doesn’t have the grating, insincere energy child actors often bring to their roles—he’s a kid who acts like a kid. Sethi is tasked with selling the wonder while also grounding The Jungle Book in the human element of the tale that’s essential when surrounded by digital pixels on steroids; it’s a terrific performance.

The themes of the story chime with the harmony of nature with its core beliefs resting on the mantra of the wolfpack. In a way, the ruthlessness of any Darwinian laws of nature are stripped away a little in favour of democratising nature in a similar way to how The Lion King justified lions as rulers of the African plains while other animals bowed in respect knowing they could be on the menu for lunch as Elton John sang The Circle of Life. The Jungle Book has its moments of darkness and it fits in perfectly with Disney’s brutal tradition of shedding parents and parental figures; you can hear the gun shot from Bambi still ringing throughout The Jungle Book. Screenwriter Justin Marks ensures the story has the animals at odds with Mowgli (they call him the ‘man-cub’ and his ingenuity is referred to as ‘tricks’) and that he will one day lose his innocence as he becomes the most dangerous creature of all: Man. There’s a beautiful scene where Mowgli meets Bagheera for the first time as a toddler and the child shows no fear for the panther. The innocence that Mowgli represents as a child preaches peace and many of his actions throughout the film are done in kindness. Mowgli makes mistakes as his humanity rises to the surface, particularly toward the film’s fiery finale, but The Jungle Book always reverts to compassion. It does favour the super-mega-happy-ending and leapfrogs over any moment to ponder Mowgli’s maturity but the casting of Sethi (a pre-teen during the shoot) would always keep the hormones at bay to never let the story fully come of age, but there’s something sweet to the adolescent bliss the film rests on.

At the mercy of a gigantic rolling cheese ball, Favreau’s The Jungle Book is a storybook come to life with the essence of old school Disney—the film opens with a hand-drawn version of the Disney logo that’s completely disarming to anyone familiar with those wondrous hand-drawn fireworks. And that’s the tussle that occurs in The Jungle Book, Disney have forever been masters of wholesome entertainment with a sinister corporation lurking beneath the waves of goodwill—buy the toys, the bed sheets and the Mickey Mouse condominium—but The Jungle Book forces you to confront your skepticism and be swept away by special kind of cinematic enchantment again.

Cameron Williams

The Popcorn Junkie