Perhaps like you, dear reader, I approached Disney’s new version of The Jungle Book with a chip on my shoulder and the question “Why? Just, why?” The answer, I assumed, was because “they” can, and there’s gold in them thar trees. But Jon Favreau’s live-action/CGI spectacle turns out to be a mighty impressive adventure film for kids that accumulates substantial reasons to justify its existence.
Disney took its first crack at Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 anthology The Jungle Book in 1967, with a now-iconic animated film. A live-action take followed in 1994, a direct-to-video title in 1998, an animated sequel in 2003, and now the Favreau film, which derives directly from both the 1967 film and the books by Kipling. Favreau retains jungle-boy Mowgli’s red-swaddling outfit, the ’67 film’s characterizations and basic plot outline, and three songs (“The Bare Necessities,” “I Wan’na Be Like You,” and, on the end credits, “Trust in Me”), but screenwriter Justin Marks also puts a bit more Book (read Kipling) in this Jungle Book.
Raised-by-wolves Mowgli (Neel Sethi, functioning as a welcome Indian role model for youngsters) loves his adoptive parents Akela (voice of Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (voice of Lupita Nyong'o), but pressure from murder-on-his-mind tiger Shere Khan (voice of Idris Elba) sends the “man-cub” toward civilization, a self-sacrifice for the common good of peace in the jungle ’hood (similarly, one of this film’s nice flourishes is a “water truce” amongst predators and prey at a watering hole dubbed “Peace Rock”). Mowgli’s journey includes guidance from black panther and longtime mentor Bagheera (voice of Ben Kingsley) and new acquaintance Baloo (voice of Bill Murray), a honey-hungry bear all too happy to exploit Mowgli’s daring and skill at scaling jungle topography.
Indeed, one of the film’s most salient action elements is the frequent depiction of Mowgli scrambling across creeper-covered tree limbs or tumbling down hills and right back onto his footing. These scenes have an exhilarating energy familiar from the now-dominant superhero genre, and, similarly, it’s not surprising to see the film explore the shared backstory of Mowgli and Shere Khan, which serves to explain the latter’s rage. In keeping with episodic children’s stories like The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and the original Jungle Book, Mowgli also has encounters with hypnotic snake Kaa (effectively gender-swapped to accommodate Scarlett Johansson's pipes) and the Gigantopithecus ape King Louie (voice of Christopher Walken).
Listen, if you don’t think having Walken sing “I Wan’na Be Like You” amounts to genius well worth the price of admission, I can’t help you. Murray predictably kills it as Baloo, especially with his well-earned apparent ad libs (verbal head-spin like “Let me interrupt myself”), Kingsley and the rest hit all the right vocal notes, Sethi carries the ball admirably in the lead, and the CGI proves astonishing in selling the animal characters and their jungle home. (Plus, the recently, dearly departed Garry Shandling as a porcupine.)
The climax feels needlessly prolonged, but Favreau and Marks have obviously put some thought into the film’s visual approach and the messages the film will send: the animal kingdom’s unexpected threats and opportunities for loving harmony with humankind; the work Mowgli puts in to come of age and to terms with his true nature; his casual kindheartedness, pegged as “special” by his elders; and his refusal to submit to fear. For a bonus, Wonderful World of Disney fans and uninitiated kids will equally appreciate the nostalgic and newfangled audiovisual punch of the closing credits, a satisfying CGI-animated postscript to the partly live-action feature.
Disney sends home The Jungle Book in a near-perfect Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD special edition with reference-quality video and audio, as well as a terrific selection of bonus features. Only Disney's lack of domestic Blu-ray 3D support (save for Marvel and Star Wars titles) mars this release. Blu-ray 3D devotees will need to import the U.K. Blu-ray 3D release at a premium. That aside, A/V specs are as good as they get: the gorgeous digital-to-digital transfer not only creates an impressive illusion of depth in 2D but also convincingly replicates the character of film grain. Rock-solid contrast and black level anchor and image of exceptional detail and textures (albeit many of them CGI-animated), along with rich, true color. The accompanying lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix completes the subtle, specific representation of the theatrical experience with full-bodied treatment of the score and musical sequences and jungle ambience that's obviously been slaved over for every effect and its discrete placement in the surround soundscape. The big action sequences particularly envelop the listener, with the added benefit of LFE oomph to thunderous hoofbeats and rushing water.
Best of set among the bonus features goes to the feature-length audio commentary with Jon Favreau. Always a champeen talker, Favreau enthusiastically details the thinking behind the project, his concept(s) for it, and pre-production, production, and post-production execution.
"The Jungle Book Reimagined" (35:02, HD) gets Favreau on video record, along with producer Brigham Taylor and visual effects supervisor Robert Legato. Though there's some expected overlap with the commentary, this is a great look at the project's inception and development, as well as its dialogue with the Kipling source material and Disney animated version. In getting behind the magic, the talent also discusses the work of the actors on screen and off, the music, and many of the film's technical elements.
"I Am Mowgli" (8:18, HD) focuses on star Neel Sethi, while "King Louie's Temple: Layer by Layer" (3:14, HD) offers a brief but valuable "layer by layer" look at how one scene built up from production footage to a fully realized, special-effects-laden sequence.
Disney fanatics with Blu-ray 3D capability should consider importing the U.K. combo pack, but for everyone else, this domestic combo pack is a great way to enjoy the film for years to come.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer