This is twice in the last year I've been completely wrong in my preconception of a Disney animated classic being turned into a live action film. I was convinced both projects were unnecessary and, perhaps, disrespectful. But, in the same way that last year's Cinderella blew me away, The Jungle Book exceeded my expectations in every way. And they're both great for primarily the same reasons: Excellent writing and superb direction. Thirty seconds in, you know you're in good hands and headed for a sublime ride as the strands of the 1966 version's opening music take you into this beautifully constructed re-telling.
Jon Favreau (Iron Man, The Avengers, Elf) is a spectacular director who can figure out how to bring really, really tough projects to life. To date, I still think The Avengers, which Favreau executive produced, is the best comic book hero film ever made. Here, he manages to pay sweet homage to the original while bringing in a slightly darker and much richer story. And Favreau's been very cagey about the fact that, yes, there's SINGING. And you know what? It works.
Christopher Walken as King Louie and Bill Murray as Baloo turn out to be pretty inspired casting, as is Idris Elba as Shere Khan, the tiger seeking revenge on "man's red flower". The only voice talent that didn't work for me was Scarlett Johansson as the snake. I understand that Sterling Holloway (the original Kaa) is a pretty tough act to follow, but, if they were going to go with a woman, it should have been somebody like Jessica Lang or Judi Dench. And the boy, Neel Sethi, is very solid despite sounding a bit "American Contemporary". At one point, he refers to something as being "cool".
The problem with the animated version is the fact that, by the 60s, those Disney films were mostly being directed by sequence directors, hence the very episodic and clumsy narrative of the original The Jungle Book which has been smoothed out here by quite a bit. It should also be mentioned that the original ushered in the use of anachronistic voice casting. Until then, celebrity voices were rarely exploited in animated cartoons. Louis Prima and Phil Harris changed that forever.
On rare occasions (this being one of them), I consider what Walt Disney, a man obsessed with the artistry of creating the "illusion of life," would say if he could get a load of how the medium he helped to define has matured. Virtually every single thing except the small boy is a form of animation. Every leaf, rabbit or drop of water -- all of it is simulated through artistry. I don't typically use this phrase but to take it all in is to realize it's "awesome".
This is a splendid picture.
(Loudinni specializes in reviews of 500 words or less, sans spoilers.)