50 years since Disney brought Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book to the big screen, Disney is taking another stab at the beloved coming-of-age adventure. Filmed entirely on a lot in Los Angeles, The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young boy orphaned after Shere Khan (Idris Elba) kills his father. Mowgli is soon found in the jungle by the regal Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and raised by a pack of wolves as their own.
What transpires is a beautiful reimagining that doesn’t compromise on what made the original so great: its child-like spirit. From a skittish porcupine to majestic elephants, the latest retelling is an immensely satisfying tale buoyed by exceptional artistry and a terrific voice cast.
Living on a plane that exists somewhere between live-action and animation, The Jungle Book is a monumental accomplishment by director Jon Favraeu and team, a feat of effects wizardry not seen since Avatar. There’s only one human in the entire film, yet it’s entirely engrossing in ways I wasn’t expecting.
A few days before the film’s premiere, I reached out to our press contact to confirm whether or not The Jungle Book would be shown in 3D (our invite said it would); the technology has been utilized so poorly over the years that I wondered why we’d be subjected to such an abhorrence. So when I got a response saying, yes, it would be shown in 3D, I became worried. Even more than the Los Angeles traffic, I dreaded the idea of sitting through the headache-inducing effects of bad 3D. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Disney’s The Jungle Book is one of those rare exceptions where 3D makes the movie better. And it doesn’t just provide one or two moments of amusement; it enhances the experience in leaps and bounds. You should seek out the 3D version if you can help it. I don’t think there’s ever been a film—at least that I can recall—that’s used the technology so effectively to the point where regular 2D doesn’t do it justice. If ever Hollywood needed an argument for 3D to exist, this would be it.
Granted, we were spoiled by the fact that Disney screened the movie in Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, two technologies that already enhance the moviegoing experience, so I have no point of reference for how the technology will translate to a Podunk theater. However, if you happen to be near a location equipped with Dolby Cinema, I highly recommend splurging. It helped to amplify what was already a beguilingly gorgeous work of art.
I don’t know how the magicians at Moving Picture Company did it, but The Jungle Book is one of the most visually stunning films I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. Every scene—from the opening sequence to the climactic conclusion—is an immaculate painting, masterfully crafted to create a spectacularly realized world. You’re not just watching Mowgli interact with anthropomorphized animals, you feel immersed in the dense jungle environments, which are alive and teeming with wildlife, from herds of water buffalo to a hypnotizing snake named Kaa (Scarlett Johanson).
Never at any moment did the art look unnatural or feel like Hollywood subterfuge. Every blade of grass and tuft of hair is rendered with pristine detail, with the same level of care you’d expect from an expert carpenter. The jungle location is vibrant and mesmerizing, a wondrous creation that’s wholly convincing.
The animals, meanwhile, are beautifully rendered and perfectly match up with a brilliant voice cast. Idris Elba is terrifying and imposing as Shere Khan. Lupita Nyong’o adds a touching layer of paternal gentleness as Raksha, Mowgli’s mother wolf. Christopher Walken is suave and confident as the grotesque Gigantopithecus while Bill Murray’s Baloo is so delightfully languid you’d think he was related to The Dude.
While Mowgli’s scenes with the hedonistic Baloo provide a nice escape from the film’s more severe and somber tone, it’s perhaps the sequence with Walken’s King Louie that steals the show. Among a throne of glistening fruit and priceless artifacts, Louie pines over his failure to acquire the Red Flower (otherwise known as fire). But when Mowgli refuses to procure this “man-made” invention, the galumphing orangutan chases after the young boy in what is one of the film’s most exhilarating set-pieces.
Think of it as The Jungle Book’s version of the kitchen scene from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, only set in a crumbling ancient city. The sequence is genuinely tense and terrifying, the type of edge-of-your-seat experience big screen movies are made for. There are many moments like this, and Favreau’s directing strikes an impressive balance between spectacle and emotion throughout, providing a straightforward interpretation—for better or worse—without pausing to ponder the darker subtexts of Kipling’s story.
This is all to say The Jungle Book is a wonderful, fun, and sparkling interpretation of the classic literature, one that perfectly captures the wonderment of being a small kid in a very big world. That’s exactly how I felt while watching the film, an emotion, I suspect, we all need to be reminded of from time to time.
The Jungle Book hits theaters on April 15, 2016.