By HEATHER TURK
Front Row Features
Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” might be a literary classic, but many would say that Walt Disney Productions’ 1967 animated film of the same name is the definitive version of the coming-of-age tale of a man-cub raised in the jungle by a family of wolves.
That is, until this past year.
A visual masterpiece, Disney’s latest live-action version of “The Jungle Book” (following the oft-forgotten 1994 movie starring Jason Scott Lee) is a cinematic marvel. Directed by Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”), the film truly raises the bar—err, branch?—for live-action adaptations to come, taking its place alongside Disney’s 2015 “Cinderella” release as that rare live-action adaptation that’s arguably better than the beloved animated film it’s bringing to life.
Featuring an all-star voice cast, including Ben Kingsley as Bagheera the black panther and Bill Murray as Baloo the bear, the film follows newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli, a young boy who embarks on a journey of self-discovery when he’s forced to abandon the only home he’s ever known—the jungle—after a Bengal tiger named Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) threatens to kill him. While much of the film’s success rides on whether or not audiences believe the fantastical CGI world Favreau’s placed in front of them (which includes talking and singing jungle animals), even the most realistic-looking effects couldn’t keep audiences’ eyes glued to the screen if Sethi didn’t deliver a convincing performance. Sethi carries the film like a true pro, though, delivering an emotional performance that’s wise beyond his years. It’s hard to believe this is his first feature-length film, as he nails every scene he’s in with aplomb.
The vocal talent is perfectly cast as well, particularly Murray as the free-spirited Baloo and Christopher Walken as the imposing orangutan-like gigantopithecus, King Louie. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in these classic roles.
Given what a technological achievement in filmmaking “The Jungle Book” is, it should come as no surprise that the bulk of the bonus features included on the Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack with Digital HD (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, MSRP: $39.99) focus on the making of the film. The audio commentary track by Favreau offers a wealth of information on the filmmaking process, although it may be a little dry for younger viewers to sit through. Aspiring filmmakers, though, will surely relish all of the making-of tidbits Favreau shares, from the fact that the river scenes were really shot at a pool in downtown Los Angeles to the fact that no one was ever more than 30 inches off the ground while filming the beehive sequence with Mowgli and Baloo. It’s also interesting to hear Favreau note when viewers are seeing Sethi as Mowgli and when they’re seeing another person or digital double playing the part. The effects are so good, sometimes even Favreau himself can’t tell the difference.
Favreau also spends part of the commentary track praising his crew —who he notes were a “very collaborate group” who all played in the sandbox nicely together—and his cast, particularly the late Garry Shandling, who voices Ikki the porcupine. A “generous collaborator” who often threw in his own suggestions for the film is how Favreau describes Shandling coming in to re-record his first scene in the movie because—unbeknownst to Favreau at the time—the comedian was dealing with health problems and felt that he could do better if given another chance. The director also points out his own big scene in the film—voicing a pig who gets squashed by a falling beehive one second, then exfoliated by Baloo’s tongue licking off all of the honey the next (“It’s some of my best work,” Favreau jokes)—as well as some other celebrity voices audiences might not have caught the first time they watched the film. And, just in case viewers missed the connection, Favreau points out the significance of Mowgli picking up a cowbell just before being introduced to King Louie for the first time—a nod to Walken’s famous “Saturday Night Live” sketch with Will Ferrell.
The most interesting thing viewers will take away from Favreau’s informative commentary track, however, is just how much hard work went into the film (Favreau notes they had to make the film four times once you factor in the motion capture sessions, adding in the animations and visual effects, etc.) and the resistance Favreau initially had toward CGI. Other fun tidbits audiences will learn include the many movies that influenced Favreau while making “The Jungle Book,” from “Bambi” and “Dumbo” to “Apocalypse Now” and “The Dark Crystal;” what part of the movie Favreau is the most proud of (hint: it happens early on); that Pixar actually helped with ideas for the closing credits; and how Favreau never liked how Mowgli left the jungle in the original animated “Jungle Book” to be with the young girl in the man-village (“That’s not a happy ending,” Favreau states).
Rather than repeating a lot of the same facts, the 35-minute making-of featurette “‘The Jungle Book’ Reimagined” showcases some of the revelations Favreau discussed during the commentary track with cool behind-the-scenes footage that demonstrates how those scenes were filmed. While most of the footage that makes up the extra was naturally filmed as the movie was being shot, Favreau notes that his part of the featurette was filmed after production had wrapped, so the featurette has more of a look back at the making of the film feel to it than your traditional making-of documentary. Favreau also comments on how this live-action version of “The Jungle Book” matches Kipling’s stories more than Disney’s animated feature and why he wanted to reinvent Kaa by having Scarlett Johansson voice the python.
“I Am Mowgli” focuses on the one lone human star in the film and how Sethi beat out more than 2,000 kids for the part. A true star in the making, Sethi’s natural charisma is hard to ignore throughout the entertaining extra, whether viewers are watching his audition tape or hearing him talk about how he spent “a tenth of his life” working on the film. The best part of the eight-minute featurette, other than Sethi hilariously continuing to call his loincloth a diaper, is when the young actor recalls an “overwhelming” trip to Bill Murray’s house where he took a private jet to play football with the comedy legend.
The extras wrap up with a brief three-minute look at the making of the “I Wan’na Be Like You” musical number, “King Louie’s Temple: Layer By Layer” (also available on the DVD), which interweaves clips from the actual scoring session attended by Disney Legend Richard Sherman (who rewrote the lyrics of the classic song to match King Louie being a gigantopithecus in this version) with clips of Walken singing the number in a recording booth and clips of the scene from the movie showing it in its various stages of development.
Even though there’s more than two hours of extras for fans to go through, it would have been nice given that “The Jungle Book” is a family release if more kid-friendly bonus features were included, like a fun jungle-themed game kids could use the Blu-ray remote to control or an educational featurette on the many animal stars in the film. Nevertheless, while the special features may not interest kids for long, “The Jungle Book” is a must-own for any true cineaste and a home video addition that viewers of all ages will cherish for years to come.