Published Apr 14, 2016Jon Favreau might be one of the stealthiest visual effects masters working today. From the blending of practical work with CGI in his underrated Zathura to the collaboration with Industrial Light and Magic that brought a real-world techy grit to the Iron Man series, Favreau's films often function like magic tricks, daring us to see where the lines blur between live-action performance and CGI. He likes to put his digital effects centre stage, and, like any good showman, convinces us we're looking at the real deal.
His new film, a live-action adaptation of Disney's 1967 animated movie The Jungle Book, is his most stunning technical accomplishment to date, a technical game-changer on the same level as Avatar or Life of Pi. Unlike those films, The Jungle Book boasts a real beating heart, and pares its storytelling down to the bare necessities, letting the images do all the talking.
If you grew up with the Disney film, you know the framework of the story, but Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks have tweaked the material slightly to give this Jungle Book an epic scope. Newcomer Neel Sethi plays Mowgli, a young boy who grew up among a pack of wolves and befriends the other animals in the jungle of India, including Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley). When Mowgli is threatened by the tiger Shere Khan (voiced with a perfect menace by Idris Elba), he decides to leave the wolf pack in order to find the human family he believes he belongs with. Along the way, he teams up with Baloo (Bill Murray) and goes on adventures as he learns lessons about family and identity.
Favreau and the effects team at Weta Digital have pulled off the impossible: they've created an ensemble of CGI characters that feels photo-real, that move like animals and feel part of a real world, besting even Life of Pi's digital tiger. When the animals open their mouths and start to speak, you go along with it because of the technical accomplishment on display. It can all feel a little uncanny because of the animals' tactile believability, but within minutes, Favreau has immersed the audience into a high-fantasy epic and it all feels right. By the time the animals start singing (because you can't have The Jungle Book without "I Wanna Be Like You"), Favreau's reached near fever-dream levels of animation that push the boundaries of what the medium is capable of.
Special note has to go to Bill Murray as Baloo, a performance that's one of his best in years. He's equal parts dopey con man and charming best friend, bringing warmth that becomes the beating heart of the film. Similarly, Christopher Walken finally wakes up as King Louie, a gigantic ape that's the last of his kind, trapped in a gigantic crumbling palace. He's genuinely sort of frightening, but the film never becomes needlessly grim or dark, striking an intense but exciting tone of high adventure.
The Jungle Book presents a living, breathing world with CGI that must be seen on the biggest possible screen to believe (especially in IMAX), one full of depth and life and movement that takes full advantage of the digital 3D environment. It's hard to believe, but it was filmed on a green screen soundstage in L.A., rather than the actual jungle. Sethi does a very good job at interacting with essentially only green balls and markers onstage, pulling off the important job of selling us on this world. One could argue that he seems just a little too modern, possessing a little too much self-awareness for a boy raised by wolves, but he still feels pulled right out of a classic adventure story.
The film's narrative simplicity is both a strength and a minor weak point, delving a little too far into generic "chase mode" tedium near the final act. Rather than escalate the action, the film deflates a little and lacks the thematic strength to make The Jungle Book a true masterpiece. Still, this is a great film and should be a big hit for Disney before the summer box office season heats up.