The Czar may have seen one of the best films he’s ever seen, which was substantially more than the initially high expectations we had going in. The movie was so excellently done that hours later, the rest of the family is in another room coincidentally talking about how much they loved it. Frankly, we didn’t expect it to be nearly this good.
The Jungle Book was better than good. It is brilliant.
First, throw out your expectations for the story based on the original 1967 film: director Jon Favreau certainly used it as inspiration for many key items, but the story line is substantially more mature and fleshed out. The characters are not cartoons, but thinking and reasoning elements with their own natural needs. The film is evenly balanced from the opening scene to (and including) the closing credits.* Just as the humor is about to get too over the top, Favreau injects action. Just as the action gets too intense, the movie goes for beautiful visuals. Just as you’re about done drinking in the incredibly rendered CGI landscapes, it goes spooky and dark. But as it gets too somber, something funny happens. There’s not a weak scene in the movie, and keeps on a comfortable pace—never getting frenetic—from opening to last shot.
The original 1967 effectively doomed future remakes by casting the brilliant Phil Harris as Baloo the bear and Louis Prima as King Louie, the decidedly non-Indian orangutan. With such outstanding performances, anything else would either be a letdown or a pale imitation. Favreau solves this issue by casting Bill Murray as a sloth bear…actually, no—Bill Murray is playing himself so strongly that some scenes of Baloo seem like Murray in bear makeup—and Christopher Walken as an overtly malevolent presence. While Prima’s Louie was a dopey narcissist, Walken’s Louie is powerfully intelligent and very much in charge. As much as you want to laugh at his Astoria accent, and do, you can’t help but think this ape is certainly going to kill everybody he can. Likewise, Murray’s Baloo is a good-natured goof, but has no trouble being a plausible bad ass when the others won’t or can’t. He’s a fun bear, but bears have claws and teeth, too. In fact, when we first meet him, we see him expressing savage fury.
Likewise, whereas Kaa the constrictor was originally a laughable but creepy villain in the most blatantly animated way, Johansson’s Kaa is completely effective as a mesmerizing siren. Her powers of hypnosis are not just brilliantly handled on screen, but she serves as an essential point of exposition: how the hell did Mowgli become lost in the jungle, and why does that tiger hate him so much?
By the way, two points there: Idris Elba plays Shere Khan as the Czar’s favorite type of villain—the truth teller. Rather than being a conventional bad guy, Khan is menacing and vicious and ruthless, but is trying to warn the other animals that one day, soon, Mowgli is going to grow up into a human—and sooner or later, humans can ruin everything they come into contact with. And it’s not enough to send Mowgli back to his own people—he has to be killed before the others come looking for him. At no point does Khan lie, exaggerate, or bend the truth. He is completely sincere in his fear of humans, and that makes his villainly believable.
The second point is the actor Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli: an 11-year-old playing an 11-year-old as an 11-year-old. The Czar has one of his own, and can reject the complaints by childless film critics that Sethi’s acting is not convincing. No, Sethi is perfect as Mowgli, and can easily see him in our own boy’s group of friends. He is a perfect 11-year-old: confident, smart, clever, strong, silly, and mildly dramatic when it matters. He was a great choice, and the Czar appreciated his depiction as dirty and battle-scarred: when we first meet Mowgli, he has old wounds all over his body from the horrible life of living in a jungle.
The Czar has no complaints with the story. Favreau may be no conservative, but he has long understood who buys his movie tickets. For a story that’s perfectly positioned to preach about man’s disrupting influence on nature, Favreau positively rejects all preaching. Instead of hippie ecological crap, Favreau shows that man’s true place in nature is as a caretaker, not as a destroyer. Indeed, it’s the animals who express surprise at Mowgli’s interest in helping others. In a powerful scene, even the haughty elephants learn that human ingenuity can transform everything for the better. And while it’s popular for the Left to dismiss Kipling as an imperialist pig, Favreau ignores all of that and sticks closer to the original story and the essential elements of his hero’s path than Disney ever dared.
A word of caution: the Czar did witness a dad having to remove his five-year-old daughter during a few scenes. This movie is best for ages 9 and up: it’s not a cute talking animals movie, but a bona fide adventure story set in a particularly nasty jungle. Plenty of reviewers seem to be warning parents this isn’t a Pixar movie. It sure isn’t: there’s plenty of blood, plenty of death, and genuine peril. But once again, before it gets to be too much, Favreau gently lets go of the throttle for a bit.
By all means, see this film. Adults definitely will appreciate it as much as the kids certainly will. It’s really that astonishing. And Neel Sethi will impress the heck out of you.
*By the way, stay on and watch the credits. There’s no surprise ending with Samuel Jackson, but the credits feature ingenious and clever animation supplemented by a solid torch version of “Trust in Me” by Scarlett Johansson and a Dixieland romp of “The Bare Necessities” done by Dr. John. Musically and visually, a real treat.
Божію Поспѣшествующею Милостію Мы, Дима Грозный Императоръ и Самодержецъ Всероссiйскiй, цѣсарь Московскiй. The Czar was born in the steppes of Russia in 1267, and was cheated out of total control of all Russia upon the death of Boris Mikhailovich, who replaced Alexander Yaroslav Nevsky in 1263. However, in 1283, our Czar was passed over due to a clerical error and the rule of all Russia went to his second cousin Daniil (Даниил Александрович), whom Czar still resents. As a half-hearted apology, the Czar was awarded control over Muscovy, inconveniently located 5,000 miles away just outside Chicago. He now spends his time seething about this and writing about other stuff that bothers him.