Jon Favreau Delivers a Future Family Classic With ‘The Jungle Book’

It may be a live action adventure, but The Jungle Book has all the magic of Disney's original animated effort, and much more.

It’s amazing how few fans realize what a great family filmmaker Jon Favreau is. Sure, he’s been stuck in the Marvel loop for so long, constantly referenced for his work on Iron Man and Iron Man 2 that his entire career seems to have been more or less forgotten. Though he got his start with the indie favorite Made, he quickly leapt into two projects that would cement his status as the creator of fascinating fantasies: the Christmas classic Elf, and the sci-fi themed Zathura.

Now, Disney has called on him to bring one of its favored properties, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, to life in a live action version using the latest in CG and 3D technology and the results are simply breathtaking. Think of the animals in Life of Pi or the wholly immersive world of Avatar stretched out through one of the most familiar boy’s adventure tale ever, and you have some idea of this movie’s magic. Then take all this to a new, almost unbelievable level, and you’ve got what the House of Mouse excels at: timeless entertainment.

We all know the story. Little Mowgli (a perfect Neel Serthi) is a boy raised by wolves. Brought to the pack by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), he has become a favorite for female Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). When his presence in the jungle is detected by human hating tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), Mowgli escapes his protectors and must go it alone.

Soon, he’s tempted by the snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) before being taken under the wing of a happy go lucky bear named Baloo (Bill Murray). Eventually, our diminutive hero is abducted by a group of monkeys under the leadership of King Louis (Christopher Walken). The giant ape wants the secret to “man’s red flower”, fire, and with Shere Khan still tracking him, things don’t look good for the boy.

There are only hints of the hilarious songs that drove Disney’s 1967 version. The animal action sequences and the overall intensity of the storyline and its situations here push the boundaries of the kid vid categorization. With it’s visual experience and edge-of-your-seat action, this Jungle Book is sensational. Now, this is not the first time the story has been told via live action. As way back as the ’40s, Kipling’s walk through nature has captured the imagination of fans and filmmakers alike, and there have been numerous stage adaptations. But none have been able to bring this story to life in such a way as Favreau. As he did with Marvel’s MCU, he seems to inherently understand the needs of a genre and plays directly to them.

Indeed, Favreau’s strength is storytelling, and the incorporation of characters within. Here, we sense Mowgli’s need for a connection, the lure of Kaa, the evil of Shere Khan, the convoluted threat presented by Louie. Instead of the episodic feel of the original Disney animated classic, everything flows here. We sense a reason for the setpieces, a need to bring the realities of jungle life to the child at the center of it all, and with breathtaking visual aplomb, it’s delivered in dynamite fashion. Favreua gets the needs of his narrative. He never under or over sells things. He just sets up the issues and then creates how they conclude.

Remember: but for Mowgli (Neel Sethi) not a frame of this film is real. Not a creature. Not a jungle backdrop. Not a waterfall or dry lakebed. As James Cameron proved, we’ve come a very long way indeed from the dinosaurs roaming Stephen Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park. As the film technology has advanced, the expertise in its use has not. Few have figured out the right way to use computer based imagery, with some actually going back to physical effects (see J.J. Abrams and The Force Awakens) to find the desired depth of design.

Here, Favreau finds the right approach. We are often unaware of the F/X, so seamlessly are they added to the mix. They also capture the spirit of the film, one that wants to combine the danger, the beauty, the thrill and the heartache that can come when man and nature interact; chases present real threats, the bigger animals like Louie and Shere Khan loom large over the proceedings. There is suspense here, as well as great surprise.

The Jungle Book also avoids that big crime in star-powered casting: the vocal stunt. Bill Murray may sound like he’s simply phoning in yet another version of his comic persona, but listen more closely. He takes the Baloo we know (thanks to Phil Harris’ Vegas lounge act ludicrousness) and reinvents him, adding more bruin to where there was once only burlesque. Walken’s work is a bit weaker, if only because he has to live up to the amazing vocal variety act that was the late, great Louie Prima in Disney’s animated King Louie (1967). Everyone else is perfect. They know the notes and beats they have to sell and they do so with passion and personality.

All of which makes The Jungle Book a joy. It’s the first family film in a long time that feels like it’s for the entire clan, from moms and dads to the more adventurous tykes in the tribe. Favreau is already being recruited by Disney to do it all again for the mandatory sequel. As he has shown before, he is up for the challenge. We never should have doubted him.

RATING 9 / 10