Dir. Jon Favreau | ★★★★☆
Think about the biggest monkey you’ve ever seen. Now double it. Now make it seven feet taller. Now triple it. Hold on, slow down, are you mad? That monkey’s much too big. But dial it down just a notch or two and you’ll be picturing an ape on par with the spectacularly large* version of King Louie that appears in The Jungle Book.
He’s an impressively grand old orangutan, characterised as much by his newfound enormity as he is by Christopher Walken’s voice, and here he assumes an on-screen presence that snaps between subtle ape malevolence and outright monkey terror. Rudyard Kipling’s magical story of a jungle-boy raised by talking animals has been scrubbed of any latent Disney sing-songiness and the more sinister tone of the original novel has been restored.
This jungle is a dark and dangerous place, but The Jungle Book keeps things just friendly enough to avoid feeling gritty (or worse, “mature”). This is, after all, a children's film for children, and director Jon Favreau has conjured up a captivating adventure in a beautifully realised world. And for adults, well you get to see what it would be like if Ben Kingsley were a big cat.
Computer-generated up the digital eyeballs, The Jungle Book is a convincingly seamless visual merger of the real and the cartoonish. Trees, rocks, flowers, skies and all of the animals living within, it’s all fake apart from Mowgli himself. And when everything is fake, nothing looks fake. The Jungle Book is a towering technical achievement, bridging live-action and classic animation to create something fantastical and hyperreal. It looks agelessly spectacular. You’ll really believe Christopher Walken is an absolutely massive monkey.
Neel Sethi, a profoundly child actory child actor, has been stuck with a challenging debut role in this green screen labyrinth. His bouncy-armed gait is a lovely tribute to the old animation, but he grins and mugs into the empty CG void like he’s having his school photo taken. Strange too are some half-hearted and danceless renditions of classic Disney songs, which feel almost begrudgingly included. Bill Murray sings The Bare Necessities as if he’s afraid somebody in the next room might hear him.
But The Jungle Book finds more than enough energy and heart elsewhere in its star-filled jungle. A joyous and swinging success from start, to grotesquely oversized ape, to finish.
* Some readers have argued that perhaps it's not that the monkey is especially huge, but that Mowgli is just very small and that things appear large relative to him. Baloo is also more massive than a bear ought to be and Bagheera is overly big too, so the "Small Mowgli" theory holds water. But there's a scene where we can clearly see Baloo and King Louie in the same room together. Make no mistake, that enormous monkey is clearly several Baloos tall. And if Baloo is already massive to begin with, as we've established, then good lord, the colossal monkey is even bigger than when we started.