Walt Disney Animation Studios 105 minutes PG
It’s a jungle out there. But we’re glad we landed in this one. Director Jon Favreau’s beautifully animated 3D production of Rudyard Kipling’s classic story is the best yet. This film is sure to become another Disney classic. Favreau hand-picked Neel Sethi to play Mowgli. He is the only live action character in the film.
Favreau says “It always starts with the cast. It’s like a chef has to have good ingredients. The kid came first. I needed a good, charismatic kid at the center.” Then he says he needed a good cast around him and brought Neel to record with the actors to get the right chemistry.
How can you lose with Bill Murray as the bear, Baloo, Christopher Walken as the gigantic orangutan, King Louie, Idris Elba as the tiger Shere Khan, Ben Kingsley as the protective Black Panther Bagheera, Scarlett Johansson as the slithery snake Kaa, and Lupita Nyong’o’s maternal wolf Raksha? All of the cast members said it was a no brainer to work with such a talented director who is also an actor. He gets it.
But no matter who’s in the cast, if the voices are not right or directed well, the story could have been just another cartoon. Favreau was emphatic about the voices not sounding too cartoonish or forced. Favreau wanted this film to be realistic but as magical as Avatar and hired Robert Legato as his Visual Effects Supervisor for that reason. Legato used his experience working on that film combined with the most recent technology to make this look photo real. The CGI animals in the story of this orphan boy appear as live as the real actor.
The animation is every bit as good as what Pixar produces. Jon Favreau has found the way to mesh the Disney genius for story and music with the feel of Pixar animation . It’s simply a beautiful movie to watch. You completely forget that you are seeing a film made entirely in Los Angeles with only one live action human in front of the camera. Kingsley praises the director for his imagination, understanding the layers of emotion portrayed and for doing the research necessary to capture the way these animals move.
You would swear Neel is talking to these animals as if they were in front of him. Besides Neel, the cast is amazing but we think the standouts are Bill Murray and Christopher Walken. In true Murray style, he says “I don’t look like a bear, but I had a girl call me a bear once.” And that’s the kind of fun sensibility he brings to the role. He’s playing an animated parody of himself, just like Christopher Walken, who’s an old tough guy. We enjoyed his singing because it was so typically melodic and guttural, like Walken does best.
Lupita Nyong’o is the nurturing maternal force in Mowgli’s life. She warns him to be careful at every turn, but still comes off loving. Scarlett Johansson is a little more sexy and slithery than Kipling probably intended, but her silky voice works.
Idris Elba says he jumped at the chance to have his son hear him in a classic story. And he liked that the script explains why his mean tiger character is seeking revenge. Mowgli’s Dad’s “big trick,” was that he used fire to partially blind the tiger. The big cat provides the danger and conflict in the film, but you find out why, which puts his hate for the man cub (Mowgli) in context.
Giancarlo Esposito as Akela, the leader of the wolf pack that took Mowgli in and is raising the man cub loves that it teachers, “value and morals and how we teach our young and about how we accept those different than we are.”
Is this worth your bucks? Yes, this is a memorable piece of storytelling and animation. We thought that some kids might find the animals and the conflicts scary, but the kids in our screening, many of them very young, didn’t flinch and were totally enrapt. It’s great in 3D which we don’t often recommend. But stay for the credits for some additional 3D magic. Favreau has created what will become a favorite with kids and adults. We expect parents and kids to book this adventure again and again.