The pre-release chatter about Disney’s new “The Jungle Book,” a live-action (so to speak) remake of the 1967 animated version directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, was about how the movie would remap the #problematic racial dynamics of the original, mired in both the social turbulence of the time and the colonialist underpinnings of Rudyard Kipling’s Raj-era stories. But after critics got their first look, the discussion has shifted to a different topic: how amazing it looks.
Directed by Jon Favreau, and shot entirely, as the end credits note, in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, the movie’s version of the Indian wilderness was overtly inspired by the otherworldly greenery of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” and the comparison apparently holds up, right down to the necessity of seeing it in 3D. (One review suggests the 3D is so essential that Disney should forego home video and streaming altogether and simply rerelease the film in theaters periodically.) Even critics underwhelmed by the movie’s story, a patchwork that incorporates fan-friendly elements from the 1967 film and Kipling’s tale of animals forging a “water truce,” and its difficulty holding onto a cohesive set of themes — shades of “Zootopia,” to which “The Jungle Book” is frequently compared” — are dazzled by its visuals. (Cinematographer Bill Pope’s credits on the “Matrix” trilogy and the recent Neil deGrasse Tyson reboot of “Cosmos” seem especially relevant here.) It’s worth noting that, with the exception of Neeli Sethi’s Mowgli, only the cast’s voices appear — Favreau avoided performance capture, although Andy Serkis will be employing it on his “Jungle Book: Origins” — but the cast does differ from the original in featuring several actors of African descent, including Idris Elba as the villainous tiger, Shere Khan, and Lupita Nyong’o as the wolf, Raksha. A more thorough exploration of how (or if) that shifts the politics of the nearly 50-year-old original will apparently have to wait for later reviews, but for now, your eyes can prepare themselves for a feast.
Reviews of “The Jungle Book”
Robbie Collin, Telegraph
If you’ve seen Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 adaptation of “Cinderella,” you’ll already have a good sense of its tone. Favreau’s film is a sincere and full-hearted adaptation that returns to Kipling for fresh inspiration, but also knows which elements of the animation are basically now gospel, and comes up with a respectful reconciliation of the two. “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” both make appearances — if they hadn’t, there might have been riots — as do phrases from George Bruns’ swooning overture in John Debney’s new score, and the opening narration delivered by the wise panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). But after a high-spirits canopy chase, the plot diverts to Kipling’s story of the Water Truce, which was missing from Reitherman’ss film, and soon allays fears of a word-for-word remake. Instead, what you get feels more like a family-friendly version of “The Revenant,” with Mowgli (Neel Sethi), the young foundling, surviving on his wits in the wilderness – foraging for fruit, scrambling over rocks, and in one astonishing sequence, skittering down a mudslide with a herd of water buffalo. (Favreau even borrows “The Revenant’s” you-are-there trick of splattering water on the camera lens.)
Andrew Barker, Variety
So immersively does the film’s visual-effects team craft every tree, waterfall and flower of Rudyard Kipling’s fantastical subcontinental setting, and so carefully are the talking CGI animals rendered, it almost beggars belief that the whole thing was shot in a 12-story building overlooking the 110 freeway. But aside from investing in top-drawer digital craftsmanship, perhaps the canniest move Disney made on this film was hiring Jon Favreau to helm it. Maintaining the buoyant heartbeat beneath all the digital flash, Favreau never loses sight of the fact that he’s making an adventure story for children — no small matter in a kid-pic landscape flooded with inappropriately gritty reboots and frenetic distraction devices — and when positive word of mouth arrives to buttress Disney’s all-out marketing efforts, the studio should have a substantial hit on its hands.
Sarah Ward, Screen Daily
Favreau has other effects-heavy films on his resume, 2008’s “Iron Man” among them, but the fact that he was inspired by “Avatar” is telling here. The level of detail on display — making more than 70 animal species look just like the real thing, rendering thriving natural backgrounds with textures even the naked eye wouldn’t see, using 3D imagery to largely add depth within the frame, and betraying the green screen-dominated production only in more static shots and dialogue-centric moments — is likely to evoke the same jaw-dropping reaction as James Cameron’s box office topper.
Mike Ryan, Uproxx
“The Jungle Book” is so much better than it needs to be and probably has the right to be. It’s a movie I assumed would be yet another overstuffed Hollywood special, but that turned out to be a visual and emotional stunner. Maybe more directors should take “indie movie” sabbaticals. Favreau took something that would probably suffer in the hands of a lot of directors that didn’t just come off of a “bare bones” project. He kept it lean. He keeps it on point and in focus. He made it great.
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter
The beguilingly credible CGI rendering of real-life animals takes its biggest leap forward since “Life of Pi” in Disney’s new telling of “The Jungle Book.” Exceptionally beautiful to behold and bolstered by a stellar vocal cast, this umpteenth film rendition of Rudyard Kipling’s tales of young Mowgli’s adventures amongst the creatures of the Indian jungle proves entirely engaging, even if it’s ultimately lacking in subtext and thematic heft.
Russ Fischer, The Playlist
Few of the film’s concepts are pushed very far. The danger of men and the fire they control is a big plot point, but Mowgli’s unusual place in this natural order is questioned only inasmuch as required by the plot. Thematic cohesion slips and slides like a kid running across wet stones, while thin connective tissue joins Kipling’s characters and big set pieces, giving way to a persistent sense of waiting for the next big sequence to come along. The strikingly realistic scenery is dappled with color, light and shadow to create dramatic stages for masterful character animations— if only the story played out on this impeccably-realized fantasy had the same persuasive command.