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'The Jungle Book' review: It's a stunning visual achievement

Rajeev Masand | News18 RajeevMasand

First published: April 8, 2016, 8:30 PM IST | Updated: April 9, 2016
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'The Jungle Book' review: It's a stunning visual achievement
The screenplay (by Justin Marks) seldom deviates from the original film, although I wish it hadn't left out Colonel Haathi.

For many that are roughly the same age as me, I would imagine The Jungle Book is one of the first movies one remembers watching as a kid. That "cartoon film" (as one described animation back in the day) about the coming-of-age of “man-cub” Mowgli who lives in the jungle with his friends Baloo and Bagheera is still imprinted on my mind. I can sing The Bare Necessities from memory, and my favorite scene – the one in which Kaa the snake lulls Mowgli into a hypnotic sleep while coiling around him – still gives me a kick.

How do you remake a film that has meant so much to so many people? Good thing director Jon Favreau has the answer. In refashioning Disney’s seminal hit in live action, using the latest computer effects and a whole ensemble of Hollywood A-listers to provide voice-work, Favreau creates an entirely immersive world and a visually stunning film that brings something new to an old story.

That’s evident from the moment the film opens, with a thrilling sequence in which Mowgli – climbing onto trees, leaping across branches – races with the wolves. It's all executed so well, I couldn't tell where the digital trickery ends and the real animals, waterfalls and mountains begin.

12-year-old Neel Sethi, who was picked from over 2000 kids, is an excellent find in the role of Mowgli. He brings a playful innocence to the character, then summons up vulnerability and inner strength when the going gets tough. You know the story: orphaned as a kid, Mowgli is raised as one of her own by mother wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) who protects him when feared tiger Sher Khan (Idris Elba) saunters back into the jungle and demands that the boy be turned over to him. It's wise panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) who decides that Mowgli must return to his own kind.

Unfolding as a rollicking adventure, this new Jungle Book evokes a genuine sense of awe and wonder, particularly in its impressively staged set pieces. I was at the edge of my seat during a scene in which Mowgli is pursued by Sher Khan, and which culminates in a bison stampede in a ravine. Another scene in which he escapes the clutches of monkey lord King Louie (Christopher Walken) even as the latter’s temple palace crumbles around him is sheer CGI brilliance.

The effects, in fact, are first-rate stuff, and marrying them with terrific performances from Sethi and the voice-cast, Favreau gives us moments of unexpected emotion. Best of luck trying to hold back your tears during the poignant goodbye between Mowgli and Raksha, the latter, who like the other animals in the film happens to be an entirely digital creation.

The crisp, smooth voice of Kingsley is a fitting match for Bagheera, who is the conscience of The Jungle Book. Elba is a more sinister Sher Khan than the one in the animation film, and Scarlett Johansson’s silky voice is employed to good use as Kaa who urges Mowgli to “Trust in me”. But it’s hiring Bill Murray for the part of slacker bear Baloo that is genius casting. Murray gets the spirit of the wisecracking bear just right, and when he breaks into The Bare Necessities with Mowgli, you’ll want to cheer.

Much has been made of the Censor Board slapping a U/A certificate on the film, a controversy that in my opinion is unjustified. The new Jungle Book is darker than the 1967 film, and there are moments in it that might scare very young children. It’s got a very different tone from the earlier film, which was an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza. Favreau for his part allows room for only two songs, keeping barely two verses of each. Later in a terrific end-credits sequence we get the full version of King Louie’s I Wanna Be Like You, and Johansson’s sexy crooning of Trust in Me.

The screenplay (by Justin Marks) seldom deviates from the original film, although I wish it hadn''t left out Colonel Haathi, and had given the elephants a little more screen time. Surprisingly, we get a different ending this time – a happier one, as if to compensate for the film’s darker, realistic tone.

I’m going with four out of five for The Jungle Book. It’s a stunning visual achievement, and one that reminds you why you fell in love with these characters all those years ago. Don’t miss it.

Rating: 4 / 5

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