I see a lot of kids’ movies, both because I am a film reviewer and because I have three kids. Most of these films don’t stick with me. My children have no interest in re-watching 90 percent of them. Inside-Out, Frozen, The Lego Movie and Wreck-It Ralph are the only kids’ films that have really wormed their way inside the heads of my children and stuck around. They’re the movies they will remember as adults, that will make up their nostalgic lists of kid’s movies of the 2010s.
Add Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book to the list. It’s not for little ones because the action sequences are too intense, but that’s exactly what makes it so thrilling for adults. It is a phenomenal film that hews closely to the Rudyard Kipling source material but brings in a few surprises to differentiate it and yet never veers far away from the spirit of the book (except for the racist stuff with King Louie from the ‘67 Disney film). It’s engaging from the first frame to the last, and breaks up the intensity with enough humor to keep us from dwelling too much on the terrors of the jungle.
It really is a technological marvel, too. The Jungle Book sweeps us up into a world of anthropomorphic animals, and never do we question whether the animals are real or computer generated. They look and behave like the real thing, even when they speak. I have no idea how Favreau pulled that off. It is, however, a film that benefits hugely from the voice work of the cast.
Ben Kingsley voices Bagheera, the panther, with the perfect blend of authority and warmth. Christopher Walken is an insanely good King Louie. Idris Elba is terrifying as the tiger and villain, Shere Khan; Scarlett Johansson is strangely chilling in her brief role as Kaa, the gigantic python. Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o are excellent as the leaders of the wolf pack, Akela and Raksha, respectively, and Bill Murray absolutely steals the movie as Baloo, the sloth bear.
The film is something of a road-trip movie through the jungle. The wunderkind child actor Neel Sethi plays Mowgli, a man cub left in the jungle and raised by Bagheera and a pack of Wolves. Sethi is incredible: Fierce, lovable, curious, funny, endearing, and so cute. He’s better than any Mowgli you may have ever envisioned in your mind. His peaceful life in the jungle, however, comes to an end when Shere Khan — who was responsible for the death of Mowgli’s father — makes it his mission to kill Mowgli before he becomes a man, and therefore a threat to the jungle. It is decided by Bagheera and the Wolves to send Mowgli to a man village for his own protection, and the rest of the film sees Mowgli navigate the jungle — and its many dangers — toward a man village while on the run from the constant threat of Shere Khan.
The first 40 minutes are so intense — as Favreau pushes us straight into the action — that it’d be hard to recognize The Jungle Book as a kid’s film were it not for the talking animals. When Baloo arrives, however, he instantly brings the humor, warmth, the song, and ultimately the heart the movie needs to succeed, and succeed it does. The visuals are outstanding, but The Jungle Book is not an empty spectacle or simply a series of cool action sequences. The characters — every one of them — feel real, and ultimately the film succeeds because we care so much about them and their fates.
I was blown away by The Jungle Book, and while the reviews for the film have been nearly unanimous in their praise, the film still managed to exceed my expectations. Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks have created a near perfect adventure film that deftly blends humor and action, character and heart, and ultimately leaves behind a film that will be impossible to beat by Andy Serkis’ 2018 version (with Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch). In 10 or 20 years, this will be the version of The Jungle Book that will be remembered above them all.