REVIEW | The Jungle Book (2016)

The man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi), raised by a pack of wolves in the dense jungle of India, is berated by the panther Bagheera (Beng Kingsley), admonished to “act like a wolf” and quit his human “tricks.” But Mowgli can’t help it. Despite being at home in the wild, his human nature comes out naturally.

But when the vindictive, cold-blooded tiger, the anti-man-cub Shere Khan (Idris Elba) thinks Mowgli should be dead, the boy not only finds himself in physical danger, but in an identity crisis as well. Where does Mowgli truly belong?

Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is the best live-action Disney adaptation in recent history. Based on Rudyard Kipling’s books, and an adaptation of the 1967 Disney animated film, Favreau’s treatment is raw—more sinister than enchanting. More Animal Planet, or National Geographic, than a fantasy musical-comedy. 

Cinematographer Bill Pope’s quick zoom-in and panning puts you as a spectator, as if you’re hiding behind the bushes with a pair of binoculars and watching a grizzly bear and a lithe panther climb up a steep cliff. Zoom in closer, and you are shocked that the bear and panther are actually communicating! And the bear sounds a lot like Bill Murray and the panther Ben Kingsley. Such hyperrealism makes the film immersive, even to kids, who will no doubt watch this with rapt attention.

The movie begins somewhat vapid and yet to find its rhythm—and it’s more to do with the disappointing Mowgli. New Yorker Neel Sethi as the man-cub lacks natural charisma and character transformation. His performance is artificial—the seamless CGI animals and the jungle are more authentic than he is.

The arrival of Shere Khan kick-starts the enjoyment. Idris Elba’s Shere Khan’s villainous presence, and terrific voice acting, is so powerfully terrifying that suddenly the most important thing on Earth is Mowgli’s survival, despite his lack of acting abilities. Shere Khan is so effectively dangerous, realistically frightening, that he triggers a fight-or-flight response, filling you with anxiety and stress, and an all-encompassing fear for Mowgli. (I’ve never been more scared of a movie villain since Ralph Fiennes’ Dolarhyde in 2002’s Red Dragon). This is The Jungle Book’s best feature, a villain that makes you whimper inside, also a testament to the film’s superior anthropomorphic effects. 

Justin Marks’ screenplay lacks humor, but it’s solid and concrete, and Favreau renders the action-suspense sequences so breathtaking and engrossing, applying tension, build-up, fear and anxiety at the precise moments, making this a truly entertaining action-adventure movie. The human expression of the animals, particularly Shere Khan’s and King Louie’s, is superb. If Mowgli’s performance is all in the voice, the animals’ are all in the eyes and the soul.

When the animals break into memorable Disney songs, they surprisingly fit in with Favreau’s almost dark and bleak treatment. When Christopher Walken’s giant ape King Louie—who comes second to Idris Elba’s excellent Shere Khan—bursts out in “I Wanna Be Like You,” it’s perfectly disturbing and menacing. The Gigantopithecus is jaw-dropping in its size and reeks of evil, taking a richer, more anthropomorphic persona than the goofy animated version. This is, in fact, one of the best decisions of the team. 

Favreau is proving to be a versatile filmmaker. His adaptation of The Jungle Book is actually more enjoyable than the 1967 animated feature film. Favreau should helm future live-action Disney adaptations (like Dumbo!).

4 out of 5 stars
Opens April 7, 2016 in Philippine cinemas. Also in IMAX 3D


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