In this movie, director Favreau retells the classics tales of Mowgli and his animal friends (and, chillingly, his animal foes) with wit, charm, realism and magic. This film manages to balance the tone of these stories in such a way that this feels very close to the tone that Kipling was probably aiming at. It’s silly; but not too silly. It’s scary; but not too scary. The Jungle Book, in this rendition, lives in a world where Bill Murray can endearingly scam little Mowgli into getting him some honey from a very dangerous place and Idris Elba’s terrifying Shere Khan can suddenly and brutally murder a likable supporting character with one quick movement. The film has comedy and wit and charm; it also has real weight and real fear. The comical Baloo tripping on a log feels just as real as the collision of Bagheera and Khan in mortal combat. It’s a real balancing act, not at all easy, and the film pulls it off beautifully, making the world of this jungle both magical and realistic, both charming and frightening. The vocal performances are really wonderful all across the board; Elba is great, as is Murray and the intriguinging casting of Scarlett Johansson as Kaa pays off in a creepy, if all too brief, scene. And a word of pure praise for Christopher Walken’s bizarre, but absolutely perfect performance as an off-kilter, surprisingly frightening King Louie. But the heart of the film is in two of the smaller vocal performances: Lupita Nyong’o as Mowgli’s troubled wolf mother, Raksha, and Ben Kingsley as the aloof, but caring panther Bagheera. Raksha has a surprising and interesting character arc over the course of the movie (I seem to remember her character just disappearing out of the original animated version after the first act) that’s really satisfying. Neel Seethi does a fine job on the face of it; realizing that he’s interacting with green balls on a green stage makes you realize the job is quite a bit better than fine. But the animation. My God. This is probably the best computer animation I’ve ever seen, certainly the best central animation. The design of the creatures and the environments are nothing short of brilliant. The animals are basically photo-realistic and the way that they move and interact with each other and with their environment is physical animation at a whole new level. Kaa is probably the only character that consistently feels sort of floaty and weightless in the environment, but even if that wasn’t done intentionally (and it may have been), it works at adding a weird, uncomfortable feeling to that scene. That the film has created an animal cast that looks this realistic in every way is enough of an achievement. But the film manages to go the extra mile and make these animals believable as creatures that can speak; the talking doesn’t look forced or unnatural and the animators get really fine, nuanced performances out of these computer generated beings, allowing them to express a wide range of emotions in a very evocative way without ever betraying the animal nature of them or making them look fake. I understand why everyone praised the special effects now. It isn’t, as I kind of feared, that the script or performances or anything else wasn’t up to par; all those other elements are great as well. But the animation is so mind-blowing and breath-taking that you kind of can’t stop talking about it, even when you loved everything else about the movie as well. This is a film that I really enjoyed watching and I walked out of the theater really loving, but it’s only grown in my estimation since I’ve seen it. It’s really quite brilliant. After the surprisingly great Cinderella last year and now this, Disney can just keep on with these updates of their classics for the rest of my life, as far as I’m concerned. This one’s a winner. 4 stars.
tl;dr – eye-poppingly great and groundbreaking animation steals the show, but smart script & great performances add the heart and emotion a lot of spectacles lack; an absolute winner. 4 stars.