If you had asked me a year ago whether or not the world needed a new version of The Jungle Book I would have almost assuredly said no, but having now seen Jon Favreau’s CGI-heavy take on the classic tale of Mowgli I now understand why such a feature needed to be made. The definitive big screen version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale is not the animated musical you knew as a child, but the live-action take hitting theaters in 2016, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.
Opening with a thrilling chase through the treetops, The Jungle Book wastes no time drawing viewers in with lush visuals and brilliant colors enriched by state-of-the-art 3D technology. Favreau’s imagination feels tangible from the moment the story begins, and you immediately need to know, do, and see everything possible. This is before you even see the iconic characters, each voiced (but not defined) by a top-tier celebrities such as Bill Murray (Baloo), Idris Elba (Shere Khan), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa) and Christopher Walken (King Louie).
The story, as you may recall, revolves around Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a man-cub raised by wolves after being discovered by a panther, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) in the heart of the jungle. Mowgli speaks the language of the animals, so we too can understand what they say. After his presence is discovered by an villainous tiger, Mowgli is forced to leave his family and return to the world of man in order to keep the peace. This begins an incredible journey that introduces a bounty of memorable characters and set pieces. The songs are largely absent, save for quick renditions of “Bear Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You,” but their presence is not missed as Justin Marks’ screenplay keeps the action and drama quick coming at an unbelievable pace. The joyous moments are more celebratory than you remember and the darker moments just a bit scarier, but nothing is too far beyond what you’ve seen or read before. It’s a tightrope act that Favreau seems to walk with ease, and it breathes new life into a tale generations already known by heart.
Recent films such as Life Of Pi have already shown us the glory of modern CGI animals, but The Jungle Book builds upon those achievements in almost every way. Even King Louie, who appears to stand around two stories tall, looks unbelievably real. When you add the film’s advanced 3D to the mix, which I—like everyone who has witnessed lazy 3D is at this point—was skeptical of, these creatures practically leap off the screen. Instead of simply adding unnecessary depth, the implementation of 3D here adds to the detail of the forest and the way the animals interact with it. Embers dance through the night sky, elephants stomp their way through dense fog. For once, 3D makes a real difference.
The vocal performances are strong across the board, but what makes them great in the context of the film is the fact they never distract from the story. Too many big budget animated features have begun relying on the public personas of the people behind their voices to lure in audience that their stories lose whatever originality they may possess. The Jungle Book is certainly not a new idea, but the timeless characters and the wonderfully diverse personalities shine as bright as ever without needing to fall back on the audience’s familiarity with the voice cast. After all, none of them are more popular than the source material behind the film, especially on a global level.
It’s possible to argue that Jon Favreau has already delivered two near-perfect films in the last decade (Iron Man and Chef, respectfully), but The Jungle Book may be his masterpiece. My skepticism regarding the recent studio stampede to transform every classic animated title into live-action “epics” dropped by the wayside from the moment this film began and remain there now. During The Jungle Book’s nearly two-hour runtime I was reminded of the joy I felt watching movies as a child, as well as the sense of deep joy for discovering an artistic accomplishment like no other that can only be truly understood as an adult. I wanted to live in the jungle while it lasted, and I cannot wait to return. Disney will no doubt try and develop a franchise out of this title, as that is the way the world works in 2016, but it feels impossible to top what is presented here.