Title: The Jungle Book
Director: Jon Favreau
Major Players: Voices of Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken
Out Of Five: 4.5
Jon Favreau is a genius.
That’s my review of The Jungle Book. OK, I’ll explain why, even if those five words completely sum up my reaction. Let’s go back …….
This is Disney’s new, live action version of its animated classic from 1967. It’s also the first of two re-interpretations of the Rudyard Kipling story. The second one comes from Warner Brothers, is directed by Andy Serkis and, as of this week, is now set for release in 2018, a year later than originally scheduled. The announcement came the day after the first UK press screening for the Disney film. And I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Back to the film. Calling it live action is probably stretching a point. The only genuinely live character is Mowgli (Neel Sethi was just 12 when it was shot). Everything else – animals, insects, the jungle and other landscapes – is done with visual effects. So that first look into the jungle is utterly breath taking. It staggeringly life like. As does everything else. Stampeding cattle charging down a muddy ravine, a huge landslide, the inside of a massive dead tree and countless other settings are all completely convincing – so much so that you soon find yourself forgetting that you’re not watching the real thing. And that’s the highest compliment you can pay the visual effects guys.
A few months ago, director Jon Favreau showed some preview footage to a small, selected bunch of film critics, me included, and he was particularly emphatic about making a film that was respectful of the 1967 animation’s heritage and creating a link with it, but that was also going to be closer in tone to Kipling’s original. And he’s certainly pulled that off, retaining two of the most famous songs from the animation but creating a film that’s both exciting and with some really dark, suspenseful moments – well, as much as you can within the confines of PG. We’re not treated to all the gory details in the animal fights, but it’s more than apparent what’s going on, especially when Shere Khan is involved.
Those visual effects animals fare almost as well as the visual effects landscapes. Baloo’s mouth doesn’t always look quite right when he speaks – maybe that’s because bears don’t talk anyway – and the same applies to Bagheera. But Favreau’s voice casting is flawless. The super cool Bill Murray is an inspired choice for Baloo – and, yes, he and Mowgli do sing Bear Necessities after a fashion! Idris Elba’s voice drips with menace at Shere Khan, Ben Kingsley’s velvet tones are perfect for Bagheera and Christopher Walken’s voice for King Louie is straight out of a gangster movie. There’s some lovely voices for the smaller roles as well, the saddest of which is for the comic porcupine, Ikki: it’s Garry Shandling in what turned out to be his last film.
But what makes this Jungle Book such a triumph is its extraordinary detail. As a youngster, Favreau was a fan of Mad magazine, especially the work of Sergio Aragones, whose trade mark was tiny drawings in the margins and in between the panels of his cartoons. Favreau’s efforts to reproduce that in the film are so successful that it’s impossible to see everything first time round. You’re concentrating on the main action and, while you’re aware that all manner of business is going on elsewhere on the screen, such the tiny monkeys grooming King Louie’s fur, you can only watch one thing at a time. That’s not necessarily a disadvantage. It means that a second visit is nigh-on compulsory and that’s no hardship.
It’s also being shown in 3-D and this is one instance where it’s worth forking out the extra. I’m sure it’s fine in 2-D, but once you pop on those specs, you’re completely immersed in that jungle, the rain looks like you can reach out and touch it, the charging cattle are even more alarming and King Louie more intimidating.
It’s a film that’s really raised the bar in terms of special effects, so much so that I’m already anticipating fun ‘n’ games come the next awards season. Because of this year’s diversity debate, perennial issues such as awards for voice actors went by the board. That could be back. More interestingly, since Inside Out didn’t get nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, will The Jungle Book find itself on the shortlist? I’d say its chances are good. And what are the chances of a film that’s almost entirely made up of visual effects getting the top Oscar? In 2010, Avatar only managed Cinematography and Visual Effects. This could be the moment when I place my bet on Favreau going one better ……
Like I said, the man’s a genius.
The Jungle Book is released on Friday, 15 April and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 14 April