Off the Shelf…’The Jungle Book’

The Jungle Book_HeaderEverybody loves The Jungle Book, or, at least, a great deal of people claim to love the 1967 film. Truth is, whether or not you have nostalgic leanings towards it, it’s not that great a picture. Now, faults aside, there are some redeeming and rather endearing qualities. But on the whole, it’s not one of the studio’s best efforts. Further, just because something is old, it doesn’t exactly make it good – take that hilarious “Honest Trailer” for instance which really sends up the film.

So now that Disney is on this live-action kick, Jon Favreau has taken the helm of this 2016 adaptation. His undying love for the original aside, this seemed a questionable endeavor since the source material was quite shallow. While Walt Disney himself pioneered and championed the advancement of visual storytelling, nearly forty years later, The Mouse House gets to again push the envelope and come up with some remarkable visuals to aid in the storytelling. The goal for this whole production was to make things as seamless as possible and put more emphasis on the heart of the story. Favreau and team have given us a sight to behold.

We’ve said countless times that acting, and in this case voice acting, can make or break a film. Some interesting choices here were, most notably, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, and the little used Scarlett Johansson. They do a lot with the material, and whether it’s creative freedom in the recording booth, or how painstakingly digital artists tried to copy signature mannerisms of Ben Kingsley, Murray, et al, these creatures really take on a vibrancy and vitality. But so much credit goes to newcomer Neel Sethi (playing Mowgli) who does so much with very little to react to.

Speaking of, Mowgli was not the most likeable character in the ’67 animated film. But here, and as seen in Kenneth Branagh‘s Cinderella, making a live action adaptation of an animated classic requires more than just giving us flesh and blood characters to react to. The story helps show that these characters have a heart and a soul. Mowgli is far more entertaining and charming in Favreau’s film; you, again, can chalk that up to good casting.

There are little flourishes that the design team adds, and from the very beginning, replete with the completely redone Walt Disney logo (it is deliciously retro-styled), Favreau does more than just make this an Easter egg filled homage. It really shows how much he cares about 1967 property. It’s that respect for the original that has some scenes and sequences mirrored as close as possible, but, for the sake of great storytelling, and pacing, he jettisoned some things that would hold things up. Other bits are simply dropped in favor of a more well-rounded narrative.

This feature is a good hybrid of music, visuals, and story. Some elements will be familiar, while others will be all new. It makes this mixed bag a guaranteed delight for even the most staunch defender of the old film. It takes a couple minutes for the visuals to register, but once things get moving, The Jungle Book becomes one of the most immersive films we’ve seen, and that puts it up there close to Avatar and Gravity.

The blend of practical elements (the very little there are aside from Mowgli), and the innovative blue screen elements/actors make it hard on the filmmakers but the results are marvelous. There are times when you know, without a doubt, this is all fake, but it looks so real! You kind of take nature for granted when you see it all the time, but this jungle looks so amazing you don’t realize it’s 98% CGI.

G-S-T RULING:

Much of the process is spelled out in the weighty behind the scenes feature “The Jungle Book Reimagined” which covers all aspects of production. On that note, one of the best parts of the film has to be the music from John Debney. Like others associated with this production, Debney has to carefully choose when to get back into the nostalgia pool and reuse, or expand upon the familiar. He almost has two jobs dealing with songs, and also composing a rousing and energetic score to supplement the narrative – it could be one of the best things he’s ever done.

So, like Cinderella, the world may not have needed this retelling, but this is just a spectacular adventure that does right by the legacy of Walt’s final picture, and also goes to show that you can successfully put a new spin on something. On the list of “bare necessities” out there, you need this film.

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