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“The Jungle Book,” popularized by Walt Disney’s 1967 happy-go-lucky animated comedy of the same name, takes on a whole new skin under director Jon Favreau’s command. Produced by Walt Disney Pictures, this live-action version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic novel stuns with breaktaking scenery and emotional complexity, lending a mature light to the otherwise entertaining children’s movie.
The film follows Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a “man-cub” raised in the jungle by wolves. He struggles to assimilate with his animal peers, who single him out as an odd and potentially dangerous creature. Despite his efforts to disregard his human characteristics and the fierce familial protection of his adoptive mother, Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o), Mowgli’s differences end up putting him in danger anyway when he is hunted down by a tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba). Facing no choice but to leave the jungle forever, he and his longtime mentor Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) begin their exodus, only to be met by a series of obstacles that force Mowgli to venture into the wild once again.
Set deep within the jungles of India, this film has an enormous amount of potential to recreate the gorgeous scenes of flora and fauna described in Kipling’s book and does so spectacularly. Scenes feature twisting branches enveloped in mist, a swampy river flanked by trees that glistens in radiant sunlight, and even a colossal temple of ruins, perfect for the villains lurking in its shadows. From brilliant fields of fire to golden sweeps of grass, “The Jungle Book” does not disappoint visually. Each minute is striking in its own way, whether it be painting joyous, idyllic scenes or ones saturated in guilt, anger, or anxiety.
The visual range of “The Jungle Book” complements its emotional one perfectly. Shere Khan shocks with his turbulent personality. He can exude sweetness and reason one second and crazed bloodlust the next. Other characters, though not quite as volatile, are equally complicated. Raksha’s conflicting loyalties to her adoptive son Mowgli and her biological cubs and family are heartbreaking, and Baloo’s (Bill Murray) languid and laid-back characteristics contrast beautifully with his savage strength and admirable dedication to Mowgli’s safety. Meanwhile, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) appears motherly yet threatening. These characters are fully fleshed out rather than being dumbed down to tropes, a refreshing twist on a genre that tends to rely so heavily on cliché.
Of course, much of this character complexity would not be possible without the actors’ stellar performances, particularly Sethi’s. Child actors are notorious for being immensely awkward on screen. They may oversell their lines, adopt a cloyingly sweet tone, or give the impression of reading straight from the script. However, Sethi does an admirable job of balancing his childlike whimsy with his maturation as a “man-cub.” He questions Bagheera with an innate, youthful persistence and displays a selfishness found in all people, young or old. And when Mowgli learns how to “grow up” in the film, Sethi adopts an intelligence and self-sacrificing persona that fits well with his curious and intuitive playfulness. His performance, though occasionally pretentious, is for the most part remarkable, rendering Mowgli quick-witted and responsible while still retaining his boyish qualities.
“The Jungle Book” falls into a few tropes in the end, wrapping up the plotline a little too cleanly and sentimentally; nevertheless, it remains unwaveringly compelling throughout. Sethi’s promising abilities coupled with the wide range of emotions found in both the scenery and characters render “The Jungle Book” a delightful yet insightful film.
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