Disney has spent the last few years turning themselves into a money-printing-movie machine. They bought Marvel in their infancy and helped put together their takeover of the blockbuster movie business. They churn out two (or three) comic-book adaptations a year. Then they bought Lucasfilm and put an infrastructure in place to bring a new “Star Wars” movie every single year. Every. Single. Year. Let that sink in. It took three-and-a-half decades to amass six “Star Wars” movies. They’ll double that amount by 2020. One would think Disney would run out of ideas on how to make money, but they’d be wrong.
A few years ago Disney started making live-action versions of their most beloved animated films—the brick and mortar of the Disney empire that established the company as the dominant force in family entertainment back when our parents were clinging to the interior wall of their mother’s uterus. Sometimes they bring direct adaptations, like last year’s charming “Cinderella.” Other times they deviate from the source material ever so slightly, with films like “Maleficent” and Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.” So far, all of them have been remarkably successful. The latest attempt to continue this trend is “The Jungle Book,” and like their other live-action adaptations, the film is a crowd-pleasing success.
“The Jungle Book” is one of those stories that never could have been done well as a live-action movie until the technology was able to render realistic worlds and believable computer-generated characters. It was the kind of movie perfectly suited for animation when it first came out because the world was practically inconceivable to stage in real life. The animated “The Jungle Book” is a classic. I was just watched it a few weeks back with my kids. It uses a classic Disney style to tell the story of Mowgli and his struggles to survive in the jungle.
If anyone doesn’t know the story, then find a tack hammer and give yourself a good whack to the toes. Mowgli is raised in the jungle and eventually told he needs to return to the land of men. Shere Kahn, a despotic tiger with an axe to grind, wants to turn Mowgli into his next meal. Bagheera decides to march Mowgli back to be with his own kind. When they get separated, Mowgli meets the lovable Baloo and they form a lasting friendship. Baloo protects Mowgli from danger and Mowgli helps keep Baloo knee-deep in honey. Eventually, Shere Khan gets wind of Mowgli and a race for survival begins.
The live-action movie succeeds in the same way, and creates a very believable jungle, populated by some of the most jaw-dropping digital effects ever created. The way the animal characters look and feel has come so far in recent years. They aren’t the least bit fake. There’s a reality to them that helps shape “The Jungle Book” into a remarkable technical feat.
But it also succeeds as a movie because of great characters. Ben Kingsley is a fantastic Bagheera, the panther who finds Mowgli (Neel Sethi) as a child and gives him to a family of wolves to be raised. Bill Murray’s Baloo is a lovable lug and Idris Elba’s Shere Khan is effectively scary. Even Scarlett Johansson as the slithering snake, Kaa, manages to bring something to her role. Sometimes animated movies feel shackled by their A-list celebrity involvement. Director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) has done a remarkable job with his actors, creating vibrant and fully realized anthropomorphological characters.
I liked “The Jungle Book,” but I had a couple of problems with the adaptation. One of them is the use of oddly pop-culture heavy vernacular. Characters use words like “jog” or “payback” but refer to “fire” as “the red flower.” Christopher Walken’s great-ape King Louie knows the word for “papaya” but not fire? I don’t have an issue with them going for more relatable, updated language choices for a newer take on the film, but when characters move back and forth between modern and antiquated phrases, it makes the film feel a little too meta for my taste. Still, it’s a minor complaint in an otherwise remarkable adaptation.
“The Jungle Book” is fun, visually dynamic, and remarkably brief. I’m always pleased as punch when filmmakers exhibit restraint with the run time. In a day and age where filmmakers feel obligated to take on an extra half-hour for their $200 million popcorn movies, Favereau is comfortable with a nice visit into the world of “The Jungle Book” that won’t try a viewer’s patience.