Disney magic, that once ubiquitous, now elusive elixir of childlike spirit and visual wonder, is alive and stirring in the hands of Jon Favreau. Well, his and the hands of a few hundred animators. Fittingly, it's animation that makes Favreau's wildly updated version of The Jungle Book so stunningly sumptuous and brilliantly breathtaking. The efforts here truly bridge the gap between old and new, 2D hand-drawn cel animation getting a 3D photorealistic CGI makeover that proves a towering testament to how delightful digital effects work can be when harnessed with enchantment.
Favreau hits the ground running here, somewhat literally, with great young star Neel Sethi bursting onto the scene as man-cub Mowgli in a full sprint through the jungle with his sibling wolf pups at his side. It’s a shot of adrenaline that also feels smartly introductory of the world that Mowgli inhabits. The jungle is his playground and, by extension, it’s Favreau’s playground too, so as we’re racing to keep up with Mowgli who is racing to keep up with the wolves, we’re also becoming aware of how delectably designed and detailed this very cinematic world of the jungle is.
This great beginning follows a stylized, partially cel animated version of the Disney castle logo that was apparently commissioned only for this particular movie, but should open all Disney pics from now until eternity. It’s beautiful beyond words and as the castle slips into the background and we’re pulled into the jungle, the opening animation perfectly sets the stage for what is yet to come.
After Mowgli’s dash comes to an end, we meet Bagheera (gently, though commandingly voiced by Ben Kingsley), who may be the movie’s most awe-inspiring effect. The sleek panther is rich with facial detail and full of warm, robust personality. The opening burst of blazing energy now done, Favreau slows down to simply watch Bagheera and Mowgli stroll casually through the jungle, the man-cub walking confidently and calmly along long branches of twisted trees, completely convincing as a true jungle dweller simply by way of body language and seamless effects integration.
These first few minutes of the movie nail the classic Disney movie approach by employing efficient exposition and neat narrative arrangement via striking visual communication. The picture has barely begun and we’re already immersed in a new world, have met two of the main characters, understand their relationship and something of their history, and of course, we’re eager to know more.
So we’re immediately treated to more by way of meeting other animals and exploring other parts of the jungle as conflict starts to peer around the corner. The Jungle Book is, by its very nature, extremely episodic, but Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks find a briskly exciting through line by having human-hating tiger Shere Khan (menacingly voiced by Idris Elba) on the hunt for our intrepid hero. It’s a similar plot to the 1967 animated version, but here the threat of the lurking villain propels the action forward with more urgency and vigour.
It helps that Elba’s smoothly booming voice gives his character a sharp edge that makes him feel genuinely dangerous and imposing, truly an animal to be feared by other animals. The animators have given him some nasty facial scarring as well, making his very appearance an intense opposition to the hero animals’ pristine mugs. Uglying up the antagonist is a traditional Disney move and it works here because it brands him with uniqueness and provides a visual marker for his motivation-stoking backstory.
What’s additionally so great about the villain here is that while Shere Khan is intimidating and frightening, a force to be reckoned with, he's not pushed to the point that he’s nastily aiming beyond the boundaries of kid-friendly entertainment. It's a tricky, precise pinpointing of audience accessibility that Favreau is particularly adept at and it's the kind of thing that Disney under Walt had perfected, a wide-reaching and uncompromising all-ages cinematic experience.
Achievements like this make it clear that Favreau is the right man for the job. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he can handle family fare after he did a fine job with the Disney-esque space adventure Zathura and his experience with the Marvel Universe-launching Iron Man is proof that he can handle big action with a wide audience in mind, but still, The Jungle Book marks a considerable leap forward for the filmmaker.
He’s exceled in certain areas before, such as casting, which he understandably claims is his strong suit, but his latest is a dazzler on every level. The cast is particularly wonderful, of course, with Bill Murray’s bear Baloo, Christopher Walken’s orangutan colossus King Louie, and Scarlett Johansson’s python Kaa all providing memorable personalities (and some briefly heard singing chops) that feel both refreshing and true to each character.
The exquisite effects work lays the gorgeous groundwork for all these well-picked actors to play on and the combination of visual splendour and quality character development all packaged in a lean, lithe story conjures that classic Disney sensation that’s in short supply nowadays.
It’s these heaping spoonfuls of Disney magic that will have to be replicated for the studio's army of impending remakes to work. It's easy to be cynical about Disney's plans to live-action-ize nearly their entire catalog and if any of the future remakes end up as obnoxiously garish as last year's Cinderella, then there'll be justification for such cynicism. But for now, let's revel in the glory of this grand adventure that honours Walt's name and legacy while improving upon the studio's original version.
This is Favreau's best movie and a rather gentlemanly throwing down of the gauntlet for future filmmakers helming Disney remakes or Jungle Book movies. This one gets it right, powered by impactful imagery and vibrant voiceover work. It’s a warm homage that isn’t bogged down by nostalgia and yet understands the specific qualities that Walt Disney himself imbued his movies with. There’s a modest swagger at work here, if such a contradictory thing can exist. Favreau hasn’t just made a great Jungle Book movie; he’s made a great Disney movie and he knows it. Like Mowgli, he’s strutting through the jungle, but innocently, sweetly, enjoying the adventure and sprinkling magic as he goes.