The Jungle Book – Review (****)

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A rare remake that arguably outdoes an iconic original, The Jungle Book sees director Jon Favreau (Swingers, Iron Man, Chef) serve up his most satisfying and ground-breaking work to date, a warm-hearted testament to the powerful potential of melding live-action and state-of-the-art visual effects.

Man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) flees the jungle after vicious tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) threatens his wolf pack, only to meet a laid-back sloth bear, Baloo (Bill Murray), with whom he sets out on an epic adventure. Ultimately, though, Mowgli will need to confront Shere Khan to ensure the safety of himself, his wolf pack and the jungle at large.

It’s easy to be cynical about a live-action update of the beloved Disney cartoon, but Favreau makes an extremely convincing case from the get-go, leaning closer to Rudyard Kipling’s source material to make this a very different, distinct outing from the animation.

Yes, it’s still got the iconic songs (Christopher Walken as King Louie singing “I Wanna Be Like You” is one of the movie’s easy highlights), but they’re well-massaged into a mostly straight-faced, earnest story, shot through with a fine combination of heart and visual aplomb. While most of the movie’s press has tended towards praising the admittedly incredible CGI animals and locales, newcomer actor Sethi still manages to ground the pic plausibly with a solid Mowgli, even if he inevitably does get overshadowed by the gorgeous visual creations.

Tonally, the pic also juggles its modes exceptionally well; like just about any classic Disney, there are scenes of peril that verge on being too intense for the youngest audiences, but it should be fine for slightly older children.

Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks do a terrific job juxtaposing the savagery of nature with the heartfelt bond between man and animal, ensuring the film has dramatic weight but will likely leave you smiling when the credits roll. On that note, make sure you stay for the credits, because they’re glorious (and pretty much bolster the movie’s status as the Best Visual Effects Oscar front-runner).

The exceptional visual presentation, the deft handling of elemental themes and iconic pop-culture mainstays, and the superb glut of performances from the wonderful Murray all the way through to Walken, Elba, Ben Kingsley, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson and Giancarlo Esposito, it all works in a synchronous manner so few could have expected.

Arguably not since Avatar has a movie so successfully raised the bar with the fidelity of VFX, and considering how easy it is to mock even good movies for their merely adequate effects, here’s one that truly distinguishes and elevates the art.

****

The Jungle Book is in cinemas now

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