Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is the new high watermark in visual effects. He’s not merely standing on the shoulders of giants and calling himself tall. Yes, we’ve seen Richard Parker in Life of Pi and we’ve seen all-digital jungle environments with Avatar, but Favreau is taking the next step forward in a film that constantly had me trying to figure out what was real and what was fake, which ultimately proved to be a bit of a distraction. The Jungle Book is an odd film because it’s a movie set in nature and yet it’s constantly reminding us about the power of technology.
Loosely based on the Ruyard Kipling novel and more closely based on the 1967 animated movie, The Jungle Book follows Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a “man-cub” raised by wolves. When the malicious Shere Khan (Idris Elba) senses the young boy’s presence, Mowgli is forced to go on the run. From there, the movie delves into a bit of episodic storytelling where Mowgli meets up with threats like the hypnotic snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and the wily yet lovable bear Baloo (Bill Murray). However, with Shere Khan waiting for him, eventually Mowgli must go to face his enemy.
Although the film can be distracting with all of its visual wizardry, there are also times when it’s surprisingly emotional. Because Favreau and his team of artists have absolutely nailed the photorealism of these animals, we can immediately buy into the mother-son bond Mowgli has with his wolf-mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), and we feel the pain of them being torn apart by Shere Khan’s cruel decrees. The movie also nails the bond between Mowgli and Baloo, and Murray absolutely charms in the voice role. In fact, the whole voice cast is so good that I would be more than happy if The Jungle Book 2 was just a feature length Tale Spin movie. Sethi, for his part, is fine, but he’s better at pulling off the physicality of the role rather than some of the emotional beats where he at times comes off as a bit wooden.
But everyone is dwarfed by what Favreau has accomplished on a technical level. Watching the film in IMAX 3D, I was completely enraptured by the amount of detail, and found myself wondering how much of the ground was real and how much was digitally created. In a way, Favreau has made another animated Jungle Book; it just happens that there are a few flesh-and-blood humans this time around.
What’s more curious about this Jungle Book is how it defines Mowgli as a human. His teacher Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and wolf-father Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) chastise him for using “tricks” when really he’s just using technology. On the one hand, the simple message is “Play to your stranges, and don’t try to be something you’re not.” (There’s also a nice message about being part of a pack, although it comes in the form of uniting against a common enemy) But it’s telling that Mowgli is an engineering hero. He’s not heroic because he’s particularly kind or nice or even has any ideological squabble with Shere Khan. What defines Mowgli in 2016’s tech-marvel The Jungle Book is that he’s a marvel with technology.
This turns the jungle into something that is to be, if not tamed, then certainly utilized. The film doesn’t really consider if Mowgli upsets the natural order of things or if there’s a way to establish equilibrium between men and the animals of the jungle. Instead, it boils things down to technology being good because technology helps the animals and helps save Mowgli. It’s a story about the power of opposable thumbs and a fully functioning frontal lobe.
The film does lose track of itself a bit when it takes a side-trek to visit the Gigantopithecus, King Louie (Christopher Walken), who comes off as a mob boss of sorts that wants to strike a deal with Mowgli to bring back the “red flower” (i.e. fire), which will give Louie all the power he needs to rule the jungle. It’s nice that the film tries to flirt with the idea of technology as a threat, but it’s a hollow flirtation when you can see all the beauty technology wrought thanks to countless CPUs.
The Jungle Book could be a much tighter movie, both narratively and thematically, and yet emotionally, it has a lot of heart. Favreau movies tend to be achingly earnest, and Jungle Book is no exception. This heart is what beats beneath the technological wonder, and its what draws us into the stampedes, the mudslides, the wolf packs, and the rest the jungle has to offer. It’s just sometimes not enough to see the film as anything more than a man-made wonder.