Jon Favreau delivers both an astounding visual marvel and a charming family comedy with this delightful tribute to classic Disney.
It takes some skill to make a very realistic film featuring a cast of talking animals. Matt Reeves and Andy Serkis made it halfway with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, delivering the dialogue-free exploits of Caesar and his army as a smart, entertaining summer blockbuster. Understandably aiming for more lightness, Jon Favreau’s readaptation of the Kipling classic adds the voices of Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley and Giancarlo Esposito to what would otherwise be a highly disturbing silent examination of conflict in the animal kingdom.
How well Favreau has cast his animal’s tones, however, is testament to the director’s talent (this is, after all, the man who gave Robert Downey Jr. the Iron Man job): rarely do the famous voices distract from the on-screen action– and oh what action! Neel Sethi’s Mowgli is the only live action aspect of the two-hour film, surrounded by a world of photo-realistic digital imagery. Disney and Favreau’s achievement is extraordinary, and you need look no further than this to see how far Hollywood’s CGI ability has progressed 2009’s Avatar (and- going further back- 2004’s The Polar Express). Wolf’s fur drips with rainwater, branches crack and leaves rustle: there is no hint of Sethi’s presence in a large green-screen studio, nattering to himself.
The effortless interaction with the imaginary environment is Sethi’s true skill; as an engaging child protagonist, he ranks midway on the scale between Jacob Tremblay and Jake Lloyd, with a habit of vomiting out expository dialogue-that-he-learnt-off-the-night-before. What flaws there are in his performance are quickly forgotten due to the visual fruits we are gifted. In addition to the miraculous CGI environment, there are an abundance of stunning creative touches: Mowgli is shown his origins story through Kaa The Snake’s eye, and the end credits sequence is an awards-worthy short film in itself.
Elba and Kingsley give their furry characters a Shakespearean weight in the film’s early half (not incomparable to Disney’s Lion King), but the arrival of two key beasts later on are what save Favreau’s film from its own hyperrealism. Baloo The Bear, the most beloved member of the 1967 animated film’s cast, is played to perfection by the great Bill Murray, who transforms the character into a strange hybrid of relaxed stoner and caring father figure for Mowgli. Murray is audibly having immense fun in the role, with several seemingly-improvised monologues. And, yes, he sings “The Bear Necessities”. And it’s marvellous. The other star of the show is gigantopithecus King Louie, with Christopher Walken inhabiting the Vito Corleone-esque ape like few CGI characters we’ve seen in recent years. He, too, serenades Mowgli with a Jungle Book classic.
The Jungle Book is, nobody shall argue, an extraordinary achievement in digital filmmaking, with Sethi the centre of Favreau’s beautifully-constructed filmic universe. But if Avatar proved anything, it’s that visualisation of imagination needs a spine of soul to survive in audience’s hearts. Avatar didn’t have the music of The Sherman Brothers.
Avatar didn’t have Baloo The Bear….