At a recent trip to Disneyland with my girlfriend, this critic joked about all of the random stuffed-animals the theme park had for sale in Frontierland. “With all of these Pixar, Star Wars, and Marvel toys for sale, why would someone buy their kid…a wolf?”
Well, now, the joke’s on me. Disney lions, tigers and bears were selling like hotcakes in a giftshop just outside Hollywood’s famed El Capitan Theater following an early media preview of Disney’s latest reimagining, The Jungle Book. And for great reason: Not only is Jon Favreau‘s (Chef, Iron Man) film a visual masterpiece, it will touch hearts too — so long as you are OK with losing most of the animated musical’s numbers and critical ending. However, my guess is most longtime Disney-diehards and casual goers will appreciate the new film’s sensible storytelling, shooting techniques, and crisp CGI.
Not that my anxiety for the reboot hasn’t come with any precautions. Being more the Pixar/Star Wars/Marvel guy (i.e. the geek), this was the one family franchise I didnt want them to touch–or at least after nearly 50-years of Rudyard Kipling’s classic, remake it right. Well, Disney, Favreau, and screenwriter Justin Marks (who’s actually set to pen the forthcoming adaptation of revered Simon Oliver comic FBP) accomplish that two-fold. Key elements from Disney’s other revered wildlife classic, The Lion King, were incorporated to the script: a far more frightening stampede “chase” scene, and, this time, a river replaces TLK‘s animal-gathering rock. None of these moments come off clunky either, and slither right into the story.
You came for the performances, though, didn’t you. Mowgli is played by cutesie new kid in the jungle, Neel Sethi, who clearly has the most amazing imagination in the world. While the timing and delivery of his line’s were hit and miss, it’s a physical performance meant to be admired. The rest of The Jungle Book cast is of the most impressive A-list, led by the masterful Bill Murray (Ghostbusters). Baloo is easily the film’s funniest character, thanks to the comic legend’s malingering bilk of a bear who gives the film’s otherwise bleak premise — of a lonely boy-cub raised by wolves — some guiding light. Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3‘s Mandarin) is strong as Bagheera the Black Panther (ahh.. the approaching Civil War‘s T’Challa has some competition), but often difficult to understand amidst all the theatrical jungle noise and energetic crowd response. Read: Quiet Blu Ray rewatch.
Remember, these vocal performances are not of your ordinary animated kind. These actors are voicing the most striking, life-like anthropomorphic animals ever put to screen. All of the wild animal’s distinct characteristics and subtleties — down to the very last whisker movement — are fully rendered (i.e. how they paw, how they scratch, how they walk, how they sit, etc.). It’s damn startling once the “sexiest woman alive” (Scarlett Johansson) hisses her leather flesh around the skinnybones of Mowgli and the voice of Black Widow comes alive. Arguably twice the banana nuts is the presence of King Louie, funnyman Christopher Walken (Pulp Fiction)-turned-Gigantopithecus blacki. His crooning ape will leave you in stiches, and he’s angry enough to leave Skull Island in much of the same shape. His humor plays a nice counterpart to Idris Elba‘s (Pacific Rim) no-nonsense Bengal tiger Shere Khan.
While some might be distracted or even baffled by Favreau’s decision to add two of the original’s songs into a film that sets a much different tone, one could look at this one or two ways. A.) The film is already dark enough for most children (i.e. man-made scars, snake-bites), thus the recognizable songs’ inclusion could help ease them into the story, or B.) Disney made him do it. Either way, Murray’s bear nails “The Bare Necessities” while Walken’s orangutan actually fumbles “I Wanna Be Like You”. His spoken-word rendition comes off a little too SNL (needed more cowbell, maybe?) and clearly rushed. Either way, I can absolutely understand the appeal of adding these catchy tunes, and neither ruined the movie for me.
To close, 2016’s The Jungle Book is a triumphant moment in filmmaking history. Disney, among countless of other things, has managed to give you a trip to Africa’s “Wild Kingdom” for only $15, with some of the most pleasant, eye-appealing CGI to date. It’s a testamant to Favreau’s directorial adeptness to the nailing of every little detail (I mean, how many National Geographic specials did this guy have to watch?), and instructing his voice performers to go above and beyond nature’s duty to make these astonishingly realistic characters come to life. Now, time for me to give in and purchase one of those cute stuffed little wolves…
Disney’s The Jungle Book howls in theaters this Friday, April 15th.