It's about half a year since the first trailers for The Jungle Book came out. Those trailers were effectively CGI showcases, and such didn't exactly peak my interest. I remember a conversation on Twitter about the announcment that the trailer was "sure to give goosebumps", but it didn't really grab me. The second trailer that contained actual voice acting and more Mowgli stuff was much better, but it was the reviews raving about the quality of the movie despite (because of?) being practically a CGI creation that finally did peak my interest, so today I went to the cinema for the first time in one-and-a-half years (it's prohibitive with children, some of you might be able to sympathize) and thought I'll share my thoughts with all of you nice people. To give you the gist of it: the movie is really, really good. So let's talk in more detail about why below the cut.
First off are the visuals. One has a healthy scepticism these days about movies that rely on too much CGI, as mostly, that stuff falls flat. You all knows those scenes of utter carnage and destruction in many contemporary blockbusters that leaves you totally flat, unable to bring an emotion with it. Not here: despite the movie being shot entirely on a sound stage in Los Angeles with only barebones scenery to go with it and Neel Sethi the only real person, it looks amazing.
And I'm not overselling this here. This may be some of the best CGI regarding a fake scenery I have ever seen. If you don't know, you'd never suspect the jungle is not real, and if you do know, you constantly forget, because the CGI is so good you don't notice it. At all. And it's not only the scenery.
The animals are also top-notch, perhaps even better. All of them are created digitally, sometimes using the facial features of their voice actor (King Louie/Christopher Walken), sometimes not (Balu/Bill Murray). Every hair on their bodies moves just right, the talking part (with their moving mouths and all) doesn't distract, their movements are gracious and convey a sense of body mass that many other CGI creatures sorely lack. So, full points in the visual department.
The same is true for the sound department. The sounds of the jungle, all the growls of the various beasts and the score can all fully convince. If you thought the idea of an epic version of "Bare Necessities" was weird, wait until you hear the final result. It's incredibly catchy, and the song is used in many variants, including a version sung by Murray and Sethi as they paddle down a river. Great stuff.
The voice actors, of course, deliver their A-Game as well. You don't really hire Scarlett Johannson (Kaa), Idris Elba (Shir Khan), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera), Giancarlo Eposito (Akela), Bill Murray (Balu) and Christopher Walken (King Louie) if you can't count on that, do you?
The real revelation is Neel Sethi. Child actors always pose a considerable risk, since so many of them are not up to the task or given thankless roles. But Sethi has excellent material to work with, and he is excellent. He embodies the cunning, vulnerability, resolve and physicality that Mowgli needs. And this is no small feat, given that he is literally the only human actor in the whole movie and most of the time has nothing at all to play against other than a sock puppet. Seriously, check out the "Behind the Scenes" video here.
Even the story is great. It's pretty straight forward (spoilers from here on out) and hews closer to the books than Disney's original. Mowgli is raised with the wolves, until Shir Khan comes along and demands his death, because he hates humans since he killed Mowgli's father who burned out one of his eyes. Bagheera is tasked to bring Mowgli back to the humans, but Shir Khan kills his old mentor Akela in order to entice him to return to the new subjected wolves (feeling a little "Lion King" vibe there).
Before Mowgli finds out, however, he meets Balu and is convinced to help him gain some honey and then abducted by King Louie who wants to master the fire. The latter part especially speaks to the quality of the movie as the overt racism of the Disney animated classic is removed in favor of a more dangerous, Darth-Vader vibe there. Seriously, Louie's dialogue sounds almost beat for beat like Vader's temptations of Luke.
In the end, all comes together in an incredibly well paced, well edited and generally well done and highly enjoyable 106 minutes, so there is absolutely no reason for you not to check this out.