In an era of oppressively darkened films and needlessly complicated, over-expository revivals of preexisting properties, Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book remake is a welcome surprise. The film’s frames are as bright and chromatic as those of the 1967 animated feature, with verdant backgrounds warmed by the amber glow of the sun. Even the dry season that afflicts the jungle at the start of the film has an inviting, picture-book quality to it, with minute attention paid to the green-yellow hue of drained watering holes.
The filmmakers retain their source material’s adventurous spirit, keeping the story simple so as to foreground the whimsy of the hyper-realistic action sequences. Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young child discovered alone in the jungle as an infant and raised by a panther, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), and a pack of wolves, runs afoul of Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a tiger that wishes to kill the child so as to sate his hatred of men. As Mowgli flees the tiger’s wrath, he finds both allies and antagonists as he moves deeper into the jungle.
At first, everything around Mowgli is striking for the photorealism of the film’s use of CGI, but as the episodic narrative sends the boy into stranger scenarios, the animation slowly shifts to exaggerate unreal characteristics. The python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), for example, is monstrously huge, seeming to curl around the entirety of a large tree as it hypnotizes Mowgli and slowly traps him in a coil. Elephants gain added majesty from a subtle elongation of their legs, while the ape King Louie (Christopher Walken) is less an identifiable animal than a rolling mound of flesh that has settled to fit the shape of the abandoned temple he rules. Even fire gains nuance from being digitally rendered, resembling a sentient creature that doesn’t burn so much as feed on the undergrowth and trees it ignites with alarming speed. The audience sees the fire the way that jungle animals do: as an unfathomable, chaotic force that prompts our most base, instinctive fears.
It’s been nearly a decade since James Cameron put together Avatar as effectively the world’s most elaborate demo reel for not only 3D, but the possibilities of advancing computer animation, but Favreau’s Jungle Book is the first blockbuster to take the same shooting approach and build something meaningful from it. The film’s incredible technical achievement is bolstered by an engaging story, as well as its perfect casting. The precocious and fearless Sethi is a real discovery, and the stars who provide their voices all suit their roles, be it Bill Murray’s laconic performance as Baloo or Walken’s alternately seductive and repulsive inflections as King Louie. Disney has made many classics over the last few generations, but this feels like the first film in decades to capture the technological ambition and instant-classic resonance of the studio’s earliest animated features.
This Blu-ray arrives with a flawless A/V transfer. The video is completely free of digital artifacts, and its color balance is so precise that one can pick out the numerous shades of green in every shot of the jungle foliage. Minute textures highlight the intricate work on such things as animal fur and subtly anthropomorphized expression, and fire burns so bright that it’s hard to look directly at the screen. The 7.1 audio mix makes plenty of space for ambient jungle noise to ratchet up tension, and dialogue is clearly placed in the front channel. Most of the bass comes from John Debney’s score, though occasional spikes in action, like a water buffalo stampede, give subwoofers a workout.
Two brief featurettes, one on the casting of Neel Sethi and the other on the animation of the King Louie sequence, are fun but largely disposable. Much meatier is a half-hour making-of featurette that goes into great detail about the film's making, down to Jon Favreau and members of his crew discussing how they redid the Disney castle logo with traditional cel animation. On his commentary track, Favreau also comes across as a more hands-on artist than he's previously suggested, discussing the technical aspects of the film and how he exploited the freedom of his approach to the material to effortlessly make otherwise impractical adjustments in lighting and camera placement.
Disney’s exceptional, gorgeous update of Rudyard Kipling’s adventure classic is one of the studio’s best films in a generation, and one of the year’s finest home-video discs.