The biggest surprise about this charming and successful film is that it works at all. Sure, it had a solid blueprint to build on from the original Disney animated film, as well as Rudyard Kipling’s novels, but let’s review a few of the many potential pitfalls.
First, casting an unknown and unseasoned child actor carried the potential to instantly doom the project. There was some dissenting opinion in my household, but I thought Mowgli actor Neel Sethi was a solid choice and held up his huge part of the equation just fine. He contributes a natural performance, never coming across as too “actory” while also displaying enough charisma to make his character’s story worth following.
Next, crafting the jungle in a computer instead of filming on location seems like a completely foolhardy choice. How is an entire project built on blue screen supposed to believably convey the majesty and wonder of an actual jungle? I still don’t know how they managed this, even after watching the behind-the-scenes proof in the bonus features, but the photorealistic settings are so well done that it’s nearly impossible to tell that it wasn’t filmed in the wild.
Finally, there’s the huge matter of the animals. Using real critters wasn’t much of an option, but trying to replicate the original jokey animated characters in a realistic setting would have been a misstep. That left the obvious but logistically challenging choice: realistic CG talking animals. For the most part, the decision works surprising well, but they inevitably fall into the uncanny valley of obviously fake animals from time to time. On the upside, the animators were able to incorporate traits of the voice actors into the characters, especially in the case of Baloo where he almost looks like Bill Murray at times.
Favreau wisely avoids making the film a full musical, but Mowgli and Baloo do get in a bit of “The Bare Necessities” and King Louie (Christopher Walken) croons “I Wanna Be Like You” to mixed results. Original animated-film songwriter Richard Sherman returned to pen new lyrics for Louie, and while they exhibit his way with wordplay, the film sequence as a whole carries an ominous, threatening tone that ruins the experience and the song. Favreau reveals in the bonus features that the original concept for the film was even darker and he dialed it back, but this is the one scene where he should have reined it in even further.
In addition to Murray and Walken, the superb vocal cast includes Ben Kingsley as the regal panther Bagheera, Idris Elba as the menacing tiger Shere Khan, and Scarlett Johansson as the mesmerizing boa Kaa. They all prove to be worth their fees, especially Murray and Elba. Their dialogue is inserted into a rich soundscape that is almost as impressive as the exquisite Blu-ray visuals, with a lush orchestral score and incredibly immersive sound effects that make full use of the DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio channel separation to envelop viewers in the virtual jungle.
The Blu-ray includes a generous half-hour bonus feature on the making of the film, exposing and detailing the effort needed to craft a believable virtual jungle filled with CG animals. The feature also boasts interviews with Favreau and the cast, mostly of the standard “everybody was awesome and we had such a great time” variety but still intriguing for Bill Murray’s uncharacteristically enthusiastic contribution to the marketing. Favreau speaks most eloquently about his admiration of the original cartoon, and reveals some fun trivia including the fact that the book seen at the beginning of the film is the same Disney prop used for the start of the toon. Elsewhere, there’s a brief feature on Neel Sethi’s journey from audition to star, as well as an in-depth exploration of the creation of King Louie’s temple scene. Favreau also contributes an audio commentary track to the film for more insight into the exhausting creative process.
"Opening Sequence" Easter Egg bonus clip: