Shocked! This is how I felt while watching Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. While watching, I actually whispered to myself, “I can’t believe I’m enjoying this.”
This is nothing against Favreau, a director I like a lot. Sure, a couple of his movies have been bloated (Iron Man 2, Cowboys & Aliens), but I suspect he feels the same way. After Cowboys, Favreau took a sabbatical of sorts: Directing a deep meditation about what was essentially himself and the film industry, Chef. Favreau will sometimes deny this and sometimes play coy about this – I hosted a panel with him on Chef and watched him do just that with a wink and a smile – but that was a very good decision for him. It’s like a musical artist releasing an acoustic album right after something big and bombastic. Chef was Favreau’s Nebraska album. Now he’s come back with something lean and mean. I truly think Favreau getting back to basics has made him a better filmmaker. The Jungle Book, the definition of a movie that “wasn’t made for me,” won me over.
I never read the book, but like most children I saw the 1967 animated The Jungle Book — my viewing was during a 1984 re-release. (Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact we have pretty much every piece of media available at our fingertips. But I do wish re-releases were more common for popular movies.) I have no special bond to The Jungle Book. By the time I saw it, I was too into Star Wars and Ghostbusters. I remember kind of, sort of enjoying it, but that was about it. Put it this way: In the 32 years since, I’ve had no particular urge to ever see it again. This is why I had no real interest in seeing this new version. I guess I just didn’t care. I was wrong.
Within five minutes, I had already mouthed a few “holy shit”s at the 3D I was seeing. It’s so beautiful! It stinks how 3D has been misused since its 2009 resurgence with Avatar. It’s become something we all try to avoid if the non-3D showing fits in our schedule. The Jungle Book is one of those handful of movies that belongs in 3D. The 3D legitimately enhances the experience. I don’t like 3D as an industry tool to milk money out of us poor schlubs just so we can watch a slightly darker screen, but if you see The Jungle Book, you should see it in 3D. This is one of those movies they should never release on Blu-ray and just re-release it every few years in 3D. (One caveat: the press screening I was at was at one of those new AMC Prime theaters, where the picture is pristine and is lit properly. Boy, that picture just burst off the screen I was watching. Unfortunately, if you have a bad local theater, I have no idea what this will look like.)
Newcomer Neel Sethi plays Mowgli, a young orphan boy being raised by two wolves, Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito). Everything seems fine enough (some of the other animals seem a little annoyed), but for the most part, it’s a harmonious relationship. Well, except for Shere Khan, who doesn’t like humans and threatens to kill the whole community unless Mowgli is turned over to Shere Khan. Idris Elba’s Shere Khan is the best villain of the year so far. He’s terrifying! (Terrifying enough where I might reconsider taking a young child? Eh, maybe. But life is full of terrifying things. Maybe it’s better to just get started on that early? Anyway: Up to you!)
A panther named Bagheera volunteers to lead young Mowgli to a human village. On the way, they get separated for a bit, and this is when Mowgli meets a bear named Baloo and this is when the film kicks into another gear.
Bill Murray has made a lot of bad movies in the past few years. Sure, it’s just his voice, but Baloo is Bill Murray’s best (major role) performance since Broken Flowers. The sincerity and charm and humor on display here is magic – especially in a movie full of CGI. As beautiful as it all looks, it still needs humanity. Bill Murray provides the humanity. Between especially Murray and Elba, these characters have real depth. (I swear, I just went re-read this piece and I can’t believe I’m saying all of this about The Jungle Book.)
The Jungle Book is so much better than it needs to be and probably has the right to be. It’s a movie I assumed would be yet another overstuffed Hollywood special, but that turned out to be a visual and emotional stunner. Maybe more directors should take “indie movie” sabbaticals. Favreau took something that would probably suffer in the hands of a lot of directors that didn’t just come off of a “bare bones” project. He kept it lean. He keeps it on point and in focus. He made it great.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.