THE JUNGLE BOOK Review: You Must See This In A Theater

The greatest theatrical experience of 2016 is here.

It’s generally useless to review the 3D of a 3D movie. After all, different theatergoers will have wildly different experiences based on the quality of their local presentation - what looked crisp and bright to me in a fancy screening room could look like a muddy mess in an AMC in the hinterlands. And yet I find myself needing to tell you about the 3D of The Jungle Book, because it is so extraordinary and it is so completely a part of what makes the movie an essential movie theater experience.

Based in part on Rudyard Kipling’s book of stories and also the previous Disney adaptation of the same, Jon Favreau’s take on The Jungle Book is breathtaking in its technical brilliance, a movie that is visually stunning on every level. If it’s a little slack in the story department - well, there are so many lovely sights to see, who can complain too much about that?

Shot in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, The Jungle Book will nonetheless transport you fully to the jungles of India, where an orphan boy named Mowgli is being raised by a pack of wolves and under the watchful eye of Bagheera the panther. This jungle is fully realized and fully populated by all-but photoreal animals… who also happen to speak and have the occasional familiar expression (without becoming too anthropomorphic). At first you’re dazzled by the realism of the jungle, but eventually something even better happens - you just accept it. It just all becomes reality around you, albeit a slightly exaggerated and extra exciting reality. Favreau’s greatest strength when it comes to the world of The Jungle Book is his restraint; it isn’t until we’re in the middle of a collapsing temple setpiece that we once again think that we’re watching computer generated imagery, and that’s just because we’re so used to collapsing buildings being CGI. When it counts - when Mowgli and the animals are just hanging out or talking or swimming - the illusion becomes reality.

The 3D is part of that. Favreau is smart in how he uses it, generally going for depth and texture as opposed to breaking the fourth wall (an impulse he finally lets loose in the closing credits, which are a hoot and a fine example of 3D as exploitation fun). The 3D is incredible; while the usual complaint about 3D is that you stop noticing it that complaint becomes a plus for The Jungle Book - lke the CGI, the depth of field with which Favreau is playing just becomes part of the reality of the experience. It is, in all the best possible ways, totally engrossing. The Jungle Book is a 3D experience of total transportation unlike anything we’ve seen since Avatar. You’re not watching the jungle and the animals, you’re in the jungle with the animals.

Which is why I think The Jungle Book is a necessary theatrical experience - you won’t have this immersion at home. And at home, in 2D and on a smaller screen, you’ll notice the stiff episodic non-structure of the film, and realize that it peaks with a momentous solemnity that it perhaps doesn’t entirely earn, emotionally. But goddamn! Those elephants look amazing! Baloo seems totally real!

Part of the film’s problem is that it’s trying to split the difference between the Kipling original and the musical whimsy of the Disney cartoon; there’s a tonal shift when Mowgli gets to Baloo that isn’t unwelcome but that the film has difficulty transitioning out from under. I like both of the film’s tonal elements - I found Bagheera and Mowgli bowing to the godlike elephants moving and I found Bill Murray’s Baloo a lovable hoot - but I wish the film has been better able to reconcile them.

But then again, have you SEEN Shere Khan in action?

The film’s voice cast is all top notch - Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Sir Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha, Christopher Walken as King Louie - which leaves newcomer Neel Sethi as the question mark. This kid wasn’t just doing his first acting job, he was doing it against massive green screens and without his co-stars always present. While there’s some stiffness in his performance - especially in physical action scenes in which he is clearly running on a treadmill - Sethi is actually a charmer and a half. Some of that comes from the way screenwriter Justin Marks has written him, as a difficult brat, but it takes immense charisma to pull that off. Sethi does.

I cannot recommend a theatrical screening of The Jungle Book enough. Favreau, who a decade ago was stanning for practical effects in Zathura, has created a technological marvel that is warm and loving, one that fills you with a sense of awe and fun. It needs to be seen on the big screen, and the biggest and the best screen possible. This movie is why we have movie theaters.