The Jungle Book, Disney’s latest live action take on one of their animated classics, actually contains sly nods to Apocalypse Now and Saturday Night Live.
Jon Favreau’s delightful and funny take on Rudyard Kipling’s tale of a boy raised by wolves is a winner. Kids and adults will love the talking and sporadically singing animals, while adults and some of the cooler kids will like the movie references and clever Easter eggs.
The story is pretty simple: A young boy raised in the jungle is pursued by a pissed-off tiger (Idris Elba) who had his face burned by a human when he was young (shades of Darth Vader). When plans to leave for a human village are rudely interrupted, Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) winds up staying in the jungle longer than he planned, and he must keep wearing the same pair of red baggy shorts. He encounters Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), an evil temptress snake, and other perils while building a special friendship with a big bear. And, as far as I could see, he never stops to wash those red shorts. A swim in the river doesn’t count. You need detergent.
Bill Murray is, indeed, a masterstroke of vocal casting as Baloo, the big bear who befriends Mowgli on his extended jungle trek. Casting Christopher Walken as King Louie, the Kong-sized master of all apes in the jungle, actually tops the Murray casting feat. It gives Favreau’s film an opportunity to become truly weird, very funny, and even a little scary.
While not a bona fide musical, Favreau does find some clever ways to mix musical performance into the movie. Baloo and Mowgli happily sing part of “The Bare Necessities” together while floating down a river, accompanied by a full orchestra led by John Debney. It’s great, but it’s not the film’s musical highlight.
The highlight comes when Walken’s King Louie, portrayed with undertones of Brando’s Colonel Kurtz, suddenly busts out “I Wanna Be Like You.” Walken is perfect for the song and perfect for the character, making the scene an instant classic. Johansson performs another song from the animated movie, “Trust in Me,” during the credits.
The story is in service of some incredible special effects that seamlessly mesh live animals, motion-capture work and puppetry. The talking animals actually look like they are really talking as opposed to animals with cartoon mouths yapping away.
Other voices include Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, the panther that raised Mowgli, and Lupita Nyong’o as the wolf, Raksha, that acted as his mother. Giancarlo Esposito, a.k.a. Buggin’ Out, lends his chords for Akela, leader of the wolves, and Garry Shandling voices Ikki in what turned out to be his final film appearance.
If you have a couple of extra bucks, go ahead and shell out for the 3-D or, better yet, IMAX version of the movie. Favreau directed his movie very conscious of that technology, and it gives the movie some nice extra scope. Tree branches look like they are going to poke you in the face, and it almost seems as if Kaa might get you into her death coil. The 3-D also makes the pop-up book end credits sequence all the more fun.
It’s worth noting that the movie, which appears to be a very outdoorsy film, was filmed entirely on studio sets and made within computers. Every landscape you see is artificial, making the filmmaking achievement something of a miracle.
Sethi, the only live actor with a big part in the film, is good enough as Mowgli, although interest in his character’s plight is perhaps diminished a bit by the fact the film is so much cooler when any of the animals are at the center of the action. It’s not surprising that Baloo and King Louie steal the movie.
Talks are underway for a Jungle Book 2 already, with Favreau returning, so the adventures of Mowgli might continue. Perhaps a main plot point could be Mowgli finding some new shorts or a bathing suit. He’s going to get a fungus in those red shorts!
Hopefully, Murray will get over his sequel stigma and be back as Baloo. And Walken … I gotta have more Walken!