The Jungle Book: Jon Favreau’s 2016 “live action” remake of Walt Disney’s 1967 animated adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of short stories. Jon Favreau is a famously analogue director. His 2005 Zathura largely eschewed digital effects for practical props, and when he directed Iron Man in 2008 he refused to film the hero’s digital double in a way that couldn’t have been captured with practical aerial photography. But with the exception of its star, (12-years-old and charmingly rough around the edges) Neel Sethi, as Mowgli, Favreau’s Jungle Book is an entirely digital fabrication. Despite the fact that it apes a live action look, in actuality it is nearly as pure an animated feature as Disney’s original adaptation.
If you think all of this sounds like a disaster in the making, you aren’t alone. But, shockingly, it all comes off flawlessly! It turns out that an analogue director was exactly the grounding force that an (almost) entirely digital production needed. Favreau films his digital jungle as if he’s standing in it. While I personally love some of the moments filmmakers have pulled off with free-flying digital cameras (like the off-the-rails “one-take” battle fly-through in The Avengers), Favreau’s conservative style does wonders to ground the world of The Jungle Book in its own reality. It also helps that these might be the most believable talking animals ever realized. It’s as if Life of Pi‘s tiger was given human voice and expression, then multiplied to fill an entire world. As human beings are still too familiar to convincingly create digitally, it makes sense that Mowgli stands as the one live grounding factor for the audience. It was a good move not to blend more live action elements. The world is consistent within itself, and the highest praise I can offer is that you eventually just forget it’s not a real place.
As for the “being an adaptation of an adaptation” issue, that also turns out to work in the film’s favor, as it seems to take and bolster the best parts of its precursors. This is one of the very rare remakes that actually feels like a more complete experience than the original. Partially because of the script, partially because of the excellent performances, and partially because of the technology, this Jungle just feels more fleshed out than it did in 1967. Shere Kahn, brought to life by Idris Elba, VFX artists, and believable motivations, is more terrifying than he’s ever been. This is the first time the “Law of the Jungle” hasn’t felt like a forced and cliché storytelling mechanism. Rather, it’s a deeply personal and practical, almost religious belief system that each character translates differently. The film’s plot, by extension, is deeply personal, and its characters’ motivations not only feel natural, they feel appropriate to the creatures within whom they reside. Mowgli’s motivations are uncannily human. Without true peer, he’s in the center of an identity crisis brought on by factors both external and internal. This slowly transforms into the most meaningful coming-of-age story that can be told, an understanding of the weight of responsibility that comes from being a human.
The charm of the Disney cartoon, most notably its songs, are also worked into the film in an interesting way. The film reads more as “a movie where characters sing” than “musical,” It works nicely and sometimes plays against expectation. Christoper Walken’s rendition of “I Wanna Be Like You,” for instance, is simultaneously amicable and terrifying, and it does wonders for the scene!
The Jungle Book isn’t perfect. There are some moments that seem to pander unnecessarily to children, and others that tiptoe just past the point of melodrama, but what works does so surprisingly well. The result is not just a remake that’s superior to the original, but an uncommonly standout, must-see cinematic experience. The Jungle Book blurs the lines between animation and live action in a way that hasn’t been seen since Avatar. It tells not just an incredibly human story, but one that speaks to all ages, and speaks to mankind’s place in a world more diverse in life than we often remember.
3D Recommendation: The Jungle Book is a rare movie that is absolutely designed from the ground up as a 3D experience. The format is as vital to this film as it was to Avatar, Life of Pi, and Gravity, and comes highly recommended.