At this point in my jaded film critic life it takes a lot to actually impress me with special effects. We’ve seen Transformers and giant blue aliens and everything in between on screen by now, and great digital effects are almost second nature by this point (unless they go wrong). There’s incredible work being done so often that it simply is hard to be blown away by anything anymore.
The Jungle Book blew me away. It is a revolution in digital animation and film making. Even if it was the least interesting film in the world it would be important to go see it in full IMAX 3D just to experience what the future of CGI will be. An almost seamless blend of live action and digital effects that would be fun to watch simply as a tech demo. Thankfully, The Jungle Book is no tech demo and is far from the least interesting movie in the world.
The Jungle Book
Director: Jon Favreau
Release Date: April 15, 2016
As a property it’s hard to believe that one could bring something new to The Jungle Book. Mogli’s (Neel Sethi) story has been told so many times in so many different ways that retelling it again seems a bit redundant. This seems especially true since this version is part of Disney’s ongoing effort to remake or reimagine their animated classics as live action films (see: Cinderella or Maleficent). Yet despite the fact that this new version of The Jungle Book once again finds Mogli raised by a pack of wolves and the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), hunted by the villainous tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) and eventually hanging out with the laid back bear Baloo (Bill Murray), it feels dramatically different from previous tellings of the story. The plot may be mostly the same as Disney’s animated classic, but striking visuals and Favreau’s surprisingly fluid direction make it an entirely new experience.
Those visuals, though. You will spend half this movie wondering what is real and what isn’t while marveling at the individual hairs on Baloo’s back or how Baheera moves perfectly or how the fat on King Louie (Christopher Walken) is disturbingly realistic. If ever a film has crossed the uncanncy valley it is The Jungle Book. Yes, there are still some parts that get stuck in the low end of that valley, but overall it is a visual masterpiece. The most impressive part is that they did it all while featuring talking animals in situations that are sometimes entirely human. Everything feels real and yet is somehow full of the magic and wonder that more traditional animation brings. It is this combination of reality and magic that make The Jungle Book work so well.
Hats off to Favreau for being able to pull this movie together. His direction is often striking and far more than you’d expect from a traditional children’s film. Some shots seem to be pulled from an art house independent while others are pitch-perfect horror moments (still suitable for children). Most impressive though is the fluid way he moves Mogli and company through the jungle. Taking advantage of his almost entirely digital setting, Favreau stitches together fluid shots that make you feel like you’re there. It helps that the IMAX 3D is simply breathtaking on the big screen and that digital animation always looks better in that setting. Though Favreau may miss a few beats here and there, they’re mostly because he’s playing towards a crowd of children who expect certain things from their movies.
The only truly inconsistent thing about the movie is Sethi, who, in all fairness, had an incredibly daunting task before him since he’s the only actual person in the entire film. It’s clear that he became more comfortable with that fact as shooting went on as his performance varies from absolutely stellar (banging out a rendition of “The Bear Necessities”) to horribly awkward (being hypnotized by the snake Kaa, played by an utterly wasted Scarlet Johansson). Still, he performs admirably overall, and it’s his animal counterparts who steal the show anyway.
Murray’s Baloo is both perfect casting and the chance to hear him sing Baloo’s classic song would make any movie worth the price of admission. Throw in a rollicking scene with King Louie that has Walken delivering a mafia routine and a chilling rendition of “Be Like You” and it’s hard not to be drawn in by the performances not to mention stopping your foot from tapping. Much of their performance can be chalked up to the stellar animation, especially Elba’s Shere Khan, who lurks around the screen fearsomely while the actor’s silky voice drips with menace.
This is a children’s movie overall, however. In the end Disney wants kids to be pretending they’re hanging out with Baloo, and the movie plays like that. It’s almost a contradiction as they hyper-realism of the film means the darker parts have that much more impact and the scary parts are that much scarier. Often the look and tone of the film don’t jive with each other, though that’s probably only a complaint an adult would have.
That look is so good, however, that it almost doesn’t matter if the tone feels off sometimes. This is a major step forward in what we should come to expect from our CGI, but more importantly to that target audience, it’s actually fun.