The Jungle Book (2016) Review

Stunning animation and a great cast of voices make this adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s book well worth a watch regardless of your age.

★★★★☆

The concept of the Uncanny Valley was first identified by robotics professor Mashahiro Mori in 1970 as the concept that when something looks, moves or behaves almost but not exactly like natural beings it causes a sense of discomfort, unease or revulsion among the audience. It is the idea that something can look so close to real life but yet is not quite right that your mind struggles to accept its likeness as something that is or isn’t real. In this photo-realistic adaptation of Kipling’s beloved “The Jungle Book”, the audience is treated to a visually stunning world of rain forests, grasslands, waterfalls and a dizzying array of animals all rendered completely using CGI. Everything is rendered with such depth and attention to detail that only the most ardent critic would be able to spot slight inconsistencies or inaccuracies of shading, tone or texture. Yet despite this, you find yourself for the first ten to fifteen minutes of the film slightly unable to accept this film for what it is. Perhaps it is because the animation is so exquisite that your mind struggles to accept that it isn’t real, or perhaps your mind is subconsciously trying to find all the inaccuracies in order to placate itself that it hasn’t been fooled by a computer into believing something animated is actually real. After your mind has settled into the style and photo-realism of the animation however, you find yourself in an immensely enjoyable film which contains nice homages to the 1967 animated classic, but has enough of its own identity to stand alone as a new piece of work in its own right.

The story almost identical to the ’67 adaptation – man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is raised by wolves in the jungle, before tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) demands that he is returned to the human village before he becomes a man and threaten’s the natural order of the jungle. Along the way Mowgli encounters many dangers and makes friends and foes including seductive Snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), King Louie (Christopher Walken), Bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). The vocal performances of the cast are spot on, from the powerful rage of Elba’s Shere Khan to the warm sarcasm of Murray’s Baloo. The casting is truly impressive, and demonstrates the respect that the chosen actors clearly had for director John Favreau’s vision for the film. Favreau manages to get an excellent performance out of his cast, including newcomer Neel Sethi in his feature film debut. Being the only real actor on a blue screen set must be difficult, but Sethi brings real emotion and believably to the role. Perhaps it might be easier for a younger actor to act against a wall of nothing, as they are likely more used to using their imagination when playing games?  Favreau also manages to include the messages of protecting the environment and the dangers of habitat destruction in the film in a way which feels natural, and does not preach. These messages are brought to the fore through the ideology of antagonist Shere Khan, who beleives that man does not belong in the jungle and can only bring death and destruction with him, through “the red flower” (fire). This allows us to understand Shere Khan’s reasons for wanting Mowgli out of the jungle, even if we cannot agree with his violent tactics for achieving this end.

While the original 1967 film is very much a family friendly musical comedy, this film (perhaps due to its photo-realistic approach) takes a darker angle. Gone are many of the songs, and there are moments such as the Shere Khan fight in the burning jungle which can be considered genuinely frightening when you consider the films target market. That is not to say that this film is brooding and dark in the same way that many Superhero films seem to be heading, and there are many moments of light comic relief. Rather than full blown musical numbers with choreography and music, this version strips back most of the songs, keeping a pared down version of “Bare Necessities” sung by Baloo and Mowgli, and “I wanna be like you” sung in his trademark New York accent. These, and several recurring soundtrack themes are an excellent homage to the original and well loved version. This film is likely going to introduce a whole new generation to the Jungle Book, and these tributes will likely stir fond memories in the older audiences of this film for whom this is not their first foray into the Jungle.

When it comes down to it, this is an adventure film for children – something director Favreau never looses sight of. Homages to the original films are there partly as as love letter from Favreau to the version he watched as a child and partly for those many adults dragged to the cinema (willingly or unwillingly) by their children. But despite these flourishes, the film maintains its own unique visual and narrative identity, feeling like a fresh new interpretation of a classic rather than a film weighed down by the weight of either its source material, or previous adaptations. This film is a visual delight, and demonstrates that fully computer generated animation can have a heart.

The Jungle Book is in cinema’s nationwide now.

 

 

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