Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book isn't just a captivating adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's classic children's novel, but has forever changed the way CGI and real world settings will be integrated in film.
There's no question about it: The Jungle Book is one of the most beautiful movies to come out of the studio in years. The attention to detail painted on every computer generated animal is impossible to ignore and the effect is a captivating experience like no other.
For the first time in a movie like this, which attempts to blend CGI elements with an actor and physical setting, the computer generated aspects of the film aren't distracting. After the first ten minutes or so, it doesn't even feel like there are CGI characters.
Paired with an A-list group of actors who are perfectly cast as the animals they're voicing, The Jungle Book is an enthralling, illuminating experience that not only pays tribute to a great story, but manages to make it that much better.
The Jungle Book follows the "human-cub" Mowgli (Neel Sethi), who has been living in the jungle among a pack of wolves since he was a toddler. He loves his life in the forested world, endlessly running through the open area with his pack brothers and sisters. Despite that, he can't help but feel a sense of not belonging to their world.
Still, that doesn't stop his pack leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) from taking him in and protecting him like he was one of their own. Things change, however, when the vicious tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) decides that it's time to kill Mowgli once and for all, leading to the boy's immediate departure from the clan.
Alongside his most trusted friend and protector, a jaguar named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), Mowgli travels deeper into the jungle than he ever has before, informed he must forever leave and live with other humans in the neighboring village. A home, he's informed, that he was supposed to have lived in his entire life.
During his journey, he encounters new friends (like the bear Baloo, voiced by Bill Murray) and dangerous creatures (like the snake Kaa, voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that show him a side of the world he grew up in he never knew existed.
Because so much of this movie is CGI, the voice acting cast was instrumental in making it as successful as it turned out to be. That means quite a bit of studio time, working with screens in front of them to nail the menacing or mischievous tone of their character.
Despite Chris Rock's claims that voice acting is the easiest job in the world, it can be difficult to connect with an animated character that you're not physically acting out, but there is nothing unbelievable about these performances.
Again, some of that comes back to just how realistic the CGI looks in the film. It's an aspect that can't be understated. The Jungle Book has redefined what CGI can do for a movie. In doing so, however, Favreau's Jungle Book is a much scarier adaptation than the previous animated Jungle Book from 1967. There are quite a few moments that get the heart pumping, and while you won't jump in your seat from any of the darker, violent scenes, there's definitely a sense that this movie wasn't made for children in the same way the former Disney cartoon film was.
One other aspect to the film that deserves a big mention is Neel Sethi's performance. Sethi, who played the young Mowgli, is the only human in this movie and therefore carries a lot of the weight. He's the one that people are going to connect with and, as both the hero and a young child, he's the character you want to root for the most. That's a lot of responsibility and pressure for a young actor — Sethi was only 11 or 12 when the movie was being shot. He manages to not only portray the character extremely well, but even adds his own charming take.
Simply put, Sethi is downright adorable, talking animatedly in every scene he's in and using his exuberance for the role to his advantage during more physically demanding scenes. It's an even more impressive feat after acknowledging that Sethi would have been filming almost every scene by himself entirely, both in front of a green screen and on location.
In many ways, this was a movie filmed between Favreau and Sethi, with the voice acting cast's parts thrown in to support the young actor. Because Sethi is the only human being on screen, he's the person we naturally gravitate to and have an instant connection with. It's vital that he's someone we like and want to support. Sethi goes above and beyond expectations, and brings a much needed lightheartedness to the film.
In fact, it's their scenes together that stick out the most and it's when the film becomes the most fun. There's a sense of childlike wonderment between the two characters in all of their excursions, from floating down the river and singing to hiking through the forest and collecting vines for rope. While the entire movie focuses on the strange friendships that Mowgli has developed over the years, his scenes with Baloo are the only ones that feel like watching two buddies hang out. It's the only time that doesn't feel like Mowgli is in a dire situation and that's partly what makes it so enjoyable.
There's no question that Sethi is a talented actor, and The Jungle Book will act as a launching pad for his career. It can't be said enough just how crucial his fantastic performance is in carrying the 90-minute feature.
The only issue the film faces is its decision to include two songs from the original 1967 version.
"The Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You" both make appearances in the movie, and while they're done with a wink, they feel totally out of place both times, especially the latter.
The film doesn't need the musical angle to make it more appealing. It was amusing, it was intense and it was emotional. If the film wasn't set up as a musical from the very beginning, or at least close to the beginning, it's difficult to inject a couple of three minute songs and expect the audience to not be confused by it.
"I Wanna Be Like You" is an even more confusing addition for a couple of reasons. For one, the song isn't actually sung, but spoken. For another, Christopher Walken isn't the type of actor who can get away with seamlessly bringing a song in and running with it. He, and his character, are too awkward and the result is an embarrassing couple of minutes.
That said, The Jungle Book is a fun and extraordinary film. It may not be an instant classic, but its use of CGI technology is a major game changer that I hope the studio uses again. On that note, The Jungle Book is the type of film you're going to want to see in theaters: It's completely deserving of a top-quality screen for the best possible experience.
A good movie provides a couple of hours of entertainment, but a great one transports you from your seat into an entirely different world, wrapping you in its embrace and immersing you in a land full of fantastical beings. The Jungle Book isn't just a good movie, but a great one, and you won't want to leave the world Favreau built even long after the credits finish rolling.