Channeling his propensity for honest, human storytelling and casual idiosyncrasies, Jon Favreau found early success in 1996 when he wrote and starred in Swingers, a humble indie that earned covetable cult status. He later made a quantum leap over to the mainstream after finding his passion as an effects man in fantasy and sci-fi, vaulting to his current status as big studio director handling nine-figure budgets. Still, he never outgrew his roots: The Iron Man director, credited with gifting the $4 billion Marvel franchise a reputation not currently enjoyed by DC Comics, just two years ago turned his small-budget passion project about a dad and his food truck into a niche event film (Chef), relying mostly on word-of-mouth to sell tickets.
There’s a poem by the late Robert A. Ward that begins, “I wish you the courage to be warm when the world would prefer that you be cool.” Ward’s sentiment, combined with Favreau’s voracious appetite for being at the forefront of an evolving cinematic landscape, mostly explains the heart of The Jungle Book, Favreau’s new real-world re-imagining of the classic Disney animated film. It melds two cornerstones of Favreau’s career: venturing into the digital frontier, and having the courage to be warm.
The curtain rises on the computer-generated animal kingdom as the camera pans across one of The Jungle Book’s many breathtaking virtual sets, which were built after recording the raw footage in an empty Los Angeles warehouse. Essentially, on set, actors in motion-capture suits ran around with Neel Sethi, who makes his movie debut as Mowgli, in front of blue and green screens. Favreau and his team then used a camera system known as Simulcam, which was developed for Avatar, to capture, in real time, CG environments superimposed on a physical production set, allowing filmmakers to see exactly how something would look on-screen and then make the necessary tweaks on the spot, meaning every aspect of the image, organic or otherwise, could align and interact with perfect precision. And the results are astounding.
Where the level of technology in The Jungle Book has historically been used for maximizing the wow factor in Michael Bay explosion-packed action flicks, Favreau makes the case for special effects that actually affect. Calling the visuals simply “realistic” wouldn’t do them justice, nor would it be technically accurate. Low-angle shots of the simulated Indian jungle, with richer colors, lusher plant life and bigger animals than anything found in the wild, toe the line between immersion and submersion. A baby elephant, typically about three feet tall, has at least a foot on Sethi, who is all legs and limbs. The real-life counterpart to Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley, ever stately), a black panther and Mowgli’s honorary godfather, averages two-and-a-half feet in height, but the tips of Bagheera’s shoulders hit just below the top of Mowgli’s head. Favreau and his fleet of production designers and effects artists construct spectacularly vivid set pieces to remind older audiences how they may have imagined Mowgli’s journey as children. Several shots are designed after some of the most iconic images of the genre—Mufasa’s final scene in The Lion King, the chicken-sized Compy dinosaurs who get the best of Peter Stormare in The Lost World— all helping to combine familiar stories with new technologies, tapping into our nostalgia and repurposing it on a grander scale.
The Jungle Book hits the ground running as Mowgli darts through the grass and up trees, sharpening his survival skills through various flight techniques (fighting obviously not available to him). Sethi, 12, is the only truly live-action element of the movie, and carries the physically demanding role with both childlike charisma and the saucy attitude of an adolescent. Bagheera rescued the “man-cub” when he was just a toddler-boy, minutes after his father died at the claws of the Bengal tiger Shere Khan, voiced by Idris Elba (calling up again his formidable presence as an evil majesty in the wake of his turn last year, in Beasts of No Nation, as another predatory authority figure).
Trouble begins during a rare water truce between animal herds in light of the dry season, when Khan discovers the boy at a community watering hole. Khan didn’t walk away unscathed on that fateful night—Mowgli’s father dealt him a powerful blow with the “red flower” (fire), blinding him in one eye. Now, the tiger promises to terrorize the wolf pack that took Mowgli in as their own until he can exact his revenge on the son of the man who cooked the side of his face. It becomes clear that not even the love of a wolf mother (Lupita Nyong’o, effortlessly regal) or Bagheera’s watchful eye can keep Mowgli safe, so his foster family decides to send him back to the man village. He encounters the usual suspects along the way, hanging out with Baloo (Bill Murray, in his element) for most of the second act, and the film settles into a nice groove before running into a few pacing issues.
Kaa, however, gets a major adjustment. The snake is voiced not by a male but by Scarlett Johansson, who shape-shifts her femme fatale persona yet again, having seduced past onscreen prey in the form of an alien, a black widow and an operating system, to name a few. Casting a voice as patently sultry as Johansson’s could only be intentional, and it’s an interesting decision because it sets up Favreau’s adaptation for a dynamic between Kaa and Mowgli that was heavily speculated upon in the 1967 version. There’s always been something Stockholm-Syndrome-sexy about Kaa. Ignoring the phallic innuendo of a 30-foot snake touching you to death, the original Kaa was gentle but firm, confident but coy, feminine and hypnotic—and he talked with a lisp. Some maintain Kaa was an ambiguously gay snake representing the LGBT community of 1960s counter-culture, a kind of reptilian Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Casting Johansson keeps that subtext going, though with obviously less “subversive” qualities.
But not all throwbacks thrive. The musical numbers could have sat it out. Composer John Depney’s comparatively pint-sized renditions of the originals may have worked in a breezier tone, but they feel misplaced under the weight of Favreau’s visual and emotional grandeur, especially King Louie’s (Christopher Walken) “I Wanna Be Like You.” The numbers are meant to be gigantic in sound and in scope, but the overstuffed framing from inside Louie’s cave, which is so cozy he can hardly move, allows no breathing room for the sequence.
Five days before The Jungle Book’s April 15 release date, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks were already in talks for the sequel. Not only is the Disney follow-up in development, but Warner Bros. is expected to release its own live-action version of the animated classic sometime in 2018. No voice is too loud and no words too impassioned for damning Hollywood’s decades-long pivot away from producing original material. But it’s a consolation that one of the most benevolent filmmakers in the business is at least trying to steer studios in the right direction.
Writer: Justin Marks, Rudyard Kipling (story)
Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Scarlett Johansson
Release Date April 15, 2016