The Jungle Book is a vivid, colorful, action-packed contradiction. Its uniquely modern cinematic environment blends hyper-realistic CG with purposely artificial animation. Its story merges propulsive action that pushes PG boundaries with jocular musical numbers that practically invite audience members to sing along. Its very existence is dependent upon the ability to navigate the uncomfortable no-man’s-land between art and commerce. Somehow, it pulls it off… yet the contradiction remains.
Director Jon Favreau’s latest entry in the grand visual spectacle sweepstakes is actually his greatest visual accomplishment, an immersive CG universe that expands and deepens the cracks from the ground broken by films like Avatar and Life of Pi. Its blockbuster impact is seismic, its visual prowess staggering. But, like the Iron Man films, it is also a product, a cog in a machine. And a bigger machine than even the Marvel Cinematic Universe; in fact, it’s the machine that revs that MCU machine. It’s the mothership, the Disneyverse. As a result, this Jungle Book is capable of dazzling flourishes but stunted by self-imposed limitations. It is something to be savored and enjoyed – and I did both – but it is restricted by a bottom line.
Fighting off cynicism became my titanic struggle throughout the film, which is in turns intensely thrilling and warmly amusing, but also encased within a Disneyfied box. Though as much as the film’s incongruous balance of ebullience and business, fright and frivolity remained a wedge that prohibited full immersion, the charms of its execution eventually became too overwhelming to deny.
In conceptual design, the film is a purposeful fusion of stunningly realistic CG animal creations and a vividly artificial animated environment, a seeming inconsistency the filmmakers rightfully flaunt as their most unique and engaging creation. Familiar characters like Bagheera and Shere Khan, rendered with painstaking authenticity, pop off the screen when juxtaposed with the more painterly, impressionistic backdrop. When combined with its 3D presentation, the result is a cinematic pop-up book with fluid motion and striking detail. If Favreau and team were clearly inspired by other recent visual wonders, their application of said inspiration is wholly, uniquely their own.
The storytelling within this vibrant creation is equally playful in the same willfully discordant manner. One might expect a live-action reimagining of The Jungle Book to skew much darker than the freewheeling musicality of the 1967 Disney animated adaptation, but Justin Marks’ screenplay is something of a hybrid, preserving a great deal of faithfulness to the high-spirited cartoon while sneaking a substantial dose of the grave danger and grim implications that define survival in the wild…and owe greater debt to Rudyard Kipling’s original text. Mowgli (bright-eyed newcomer Neel Sethi), the orphaned “Man-Cub” adopted into a pack of wolves, is made to wrestle with the villainous Bengal tiger Shere Khan (voiced impeccably by Idris Elba) in more tangibly brooding ways that address the differences between man (civil but weak) and beast (strong but purely instinctual)…but he also sings a rousing, bluesy rendition of “Bear Necessities” with bumbling free-spirit Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray, because of course). Mowgli’s life is clearly in danger when he enters the stone fortress of enormous orangutan King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken as though Favreau’s only note was “be Walken”), but not before Louie belts the rousing chorus of “I Wanna Be Like You.”
Such is The Jungle Book’s structure for the entirety of its 108-minute run time, ebbing and flowing between dark and light, between the sinister and the silly. In each iteration, as stirring visual marvel and cutesy Disney commercial, the film works just fine – what’s noticeably uncomfortable is flipping the switch between the two. The transitions aren’t always graceful, but such are the pitfalls of attempting to reconcile artistic vision with corporate branding. Within those trappings, it’s kind of amazing that Favreau and Co. are able to deliver a film that plays the game but still functions as a movie.
The Blu-ray release includes a commentary track from Favreau and several making-of featurettes.