It is a common complaint from many that Hollywood needs to be original – every year we see a glut of remakes, reboots, sequels and re-imaginings of previously existing movies – and it is a complaint I fully agree with. Hollywood doesn’t seem to be very capable of making many completely original films, and those that are original are usually made in the independent sphere, and thus don’t make much money. However, while it is true that these remakes, reboots and sequels are rarely ever better than the original or even that good to begin with, there are one or two films every year that are actually excellent. This year, we were given the gift of The Jungle Book, a re-imagining of a truly iconic story, and it was just purely sublime.
To be perfectly honest, I was deeply opposed to the idea of a remake (or rather, as it is based on a book, another adaptation) of The Jungle Book. Disney has developed a trend in remaking their animated classics as live-action films. Sometimes they work (Cinderella) and sometimes they don’t (Alice in Wonderland). While I like Jon Favreau, I didn’t have the highest confidence in him to be able to adapt this sensitive story to the screen (although, to be fair, any filmmaker who can go from the loud and dynamic blockbuster Iron Man to the simple and elegant brilliance of Chef is actually not untalented at all). Overall, I just wasn’t as enthusiastic about this film as I should’ve been, and perhaps it was experience that made me cynical to the fact that a film like this could actually blow me away – in retrospect, having seen it, it seems utterly stupid to have ever doubted this film and its potential to be amazing – but in the end, these are the moments that make me so happy to be a cinephile, because when something catches you off guard, it is truly amazing.
There are a variety of factors that made The Jungle Book so utterly amazing. The first is the cast. There is a problem with many animated films, where the voices that come out of the characters’ mouths aren’t really that appropriate, or don’t quite match. The Jungle Book surpasses this problem through absolutely exquisite casting. Ben Kingsley, who may not turn down many roles, is perfectly cast as the regal and elegant Bagheera, the panther that protects Mowgli from all harm. Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o do very well in slightly smaller roles as the wolves that adopt Mowgli into their pack and raise him as one of their own. Idris Elba inspires absolute terror into us as the horrifying and malicious Shere Khan, who is quite simply one of the best villains put onto film in the last few years – every scene he appears in is just terrifying, and he does a great job of inhabiting the cruel and evil tiger and main antagonist.
The idea to make Kaa the python into a female character was a risky one, but unfortunately Scarlett Johansson was underused, only appearing once. Johansson has the sultry and seductive voice that made Kaa all the more terrifying and deeply disturbing, and her rendition of “Trust in Me” over the credits is the exact thing that nightmares are made out of – a haunting lullaby that seems sweet, but is just terrifying at the same time. Christopher Walken was perfect for the role of King Louie, a gigantopithecus who rules over the monkey population of the jungle. Many have noted that his introduction bears similarity to Marlon Brando’s introduction in Apocalypse Now – its a small homage that not many people will get, but if you do, it just elevates the film to another level completely. Walken has his own rendition of a song, this time “I Wanna Be Like You”, which is in itself deeply disturbing but also hilarious and you can’t help singing along to it.
Of course, the best was saved for last – Bill Murray was an absolutely perfect choice for the role of Baloo, the easy-going bear. Murray is such a popular actor and comedian, and having him voice one of Disney’s most endearing characters was obvious. Murray is still able to bring a great deal of emotional heft to the character while still being the comic relief that the film’s often dark tone desperately needed, and considering that Murray’s other most notable voice-performance was as Garfield in those dreadful misfires a few years ago, I would definitely say this was a step-up for one of the most beloved performers working today. It is also worth it because Murray gives the best rendition of “The Bare Necessities”. The music in this film was just wonderful, and I think the score was one of the very best parts of the film. Truly wonderful.
I just want to say that Neel Sethi, who played Mowgli, was excellent. Not only did he do the very difficult task of absolutely killing it in his very first film role, he did it essentially by himself – as the only live-action character in the film, Sethi was essentially in a one-man show. The fact that he was able to bring so much emotion and intensity to the role speaks both to his ease and confidence in the role, and the fact that Favreau and the special effects team were able to merge their talents so perfectly, so that a child in a studio acting to what can only be described as a tennis ball on a stick can result in one of the most beautifully made films in many, many years. Sethi was excellent, and I’m not sure what the future holds for him, but at least he gave a truly convincing performance in a great film like The Jungle Book.
As the film industry begins to develop more and more in terms of technology, they constantly attempt to top themselves by seeing how far we can go to creating artificial worlds that look as authentic as the real world. Honestly, many people believed that the height in computer-generated imagery was Avatar (I’m not a fan of the film, but I will undoubtedly admit that it was well-made in terms of special effects). Thankfully, The Jungle Book has been able to top Avatar as the most innovative and unique use of special effects ever put on film. I am reluctant to throw out grandiose statements like “the greatest of all time”, but from where I stand, I haven’t seen a better use of CGI than that used in The Jungle Book, and that isn’t a far-fetched idea – so much heart and effort was put into it, and while it may not be the technical juggernaut that Avatar was, it had heart and soul in its effects, which Avatar did not.
The Jungle Book is just brilliant. It stirred so many emotions in me – I was legitimately terrified at some parts (and a note – this is a very dark version of the film. It isn’t necessarily inappropriate for children, but there are some hauntingly creepy moments, as it should be), but I also found myself feeling the same as I did when I saw the 1967 film when I was much younger. I also found myself crying, just a little – this film was deeply emotional as well, and it was just something extraordinary. I have seen some great films this year, but I find it very difficult to see this not being on my list of my favorites of the year, because while I am sure there will be other extraordinary films released this year, I doubt anything will come close to the technical and emotional marvel that was The Jungle Book.