After decades spent wrestling with the logistics of international shoots, Hollywood seems to be coming full circle. It’s like the early days of cinema again, when exotic locales were evoked within the confines of a movie studio, though today’s filmmakers aren’t so reliant on hand-painted scenery any more.
Earlier this year, “Captain America: Civil War” staged its most spectacular set piece at a German airport that was actually a perfect digital replica. The parts of the scene that weren’t computer-generated had been filmed on a studio backlot in Atlanta.
Now there’s Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book,” a lavish rehash of the 1967 Disney classic that takes computer-generated fakery to new heights. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film comes at the very end, when a line in the credits reveals that it was shot in downtown Los Angeles. It may be teeming with hyperreal flora and fauna, but Mowgli — the jungle-dwelling “man cub” played by 12-year-old newcomer Neel Sethi — is the only part of it that wasn’t born in a hard drive.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||106 mins|
When Disney first made a live-action “The Jungle Book” in 1994, the production went as far afield as Bombay and Jodhpur. Favreau never had to leave South California. Enlisting an army of visual effects artists, he has created a digital simulacrum of the natural world that’s even more luscious than the real thing.
Though it retains some strands of DNA from the original 1894 “Jungle Book” stories by Rudyard Kipling, the film’s primary source is Wolfgang Reitherman’s 1967 animation, the final movie to bear the fingerprints of Walt Disney himself.
In this modern retelling, screenwriter Justin Marks makes more effort to flesh out the story: The vicious tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) is given a clear motivation for wanting to kill Mowgli; Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), the wolf mother who raises the boy, is now a key character; and the “Law of the Jungle” that Kipling outlined in his stories plays an integral role in the plot.
The goofy, guileless Mowgli of the ’67 animation is now an ingenious innovator, crafting tools from branches and jungle vines — a powerful argument that such human resourcefulness is the product of nature rather than nurture. But despite the film’s attempts at believability, it never resolves the story’s most pressing question: Where on Earth did this foundling get his indestructible orange loincloth?
There’s some impressive vocal talent, including a few casting choices that feel not so much inspired as inevitable. Ben Kingsley must have been at the top of the list to play the wise panther, Bagheera. Ditto Bill Murray as Baloo the bear, though while the actor’s languid charisma is a perfect fit, he isn’t given much opportunity to stamp his personality on the role, the way Robin Williams did in “Aladdin.”
Elba was a less obvious choice for Shere Khan, and his unmistakably London-accented line readings are a world away from the upper-class brogue that George Sanders brought to the part. Unlike Sanders, however, he’s genuinely threatening, which fits with the overall tone of the film.
Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” is tough and surprisingly dark, with a few scenes that are likely to terrify younger children. His version of orangutan overlord King Louie (Christopher Walken) has more in common with Colonel Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now” than with Louie Armstrong, the model for the earlier incarnation. When he launches into a rendition of “I Wan’na Be Like You” — one of a few songs to survive from the 1967 film — the infectious Dixieland number is freighted with menace.
Maybe that’s a sign of things to come? The film leaves the door open for a sequel, and it would be fascinating to see them adapt Kipling’s later Mowgli stories, in which the hero makes a troubled return to human society.
It would hardly be typical Disney material, but Favreau is off to a promising start here.
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