I'm going to start this off with a bit of personal perspective, related to my expectations going into this film. If you'd like to skip this and get straight to the review, feel free to scroll down. I'll clearly mark where the review starts with a big "THE REVIEW" line.
Okay. So Jon Favreau, to me, is kind of a big deal. I think he's a vastly underrated director with untapped range. At a time when the industry, and even fans, are all too happy to pigeonhole people, Favreau has shown that he can excel at all kinds of genres- as both a director and as a writer.
For me, his ELF is a modern day holiday classic, and a staple in my household every December. His IRON MAN singlehandedly launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it. CHEF is the best movie you've never seen, and it's a little, human story about a cook rediscovering himself and reconnecting with his estranged son after a painful fall from grace. Along the way, he also wrote SWINGERS and MADE, films that paired him- to great effect- with Vince Vaughn, movies brimming with great dialogue and interesting characters. Some would say Vaughn could use another Favreau joint to get his career back on track.
So this great potential makes some of his failures all the more startling. IRON MAN 2 definitely had its moments, but was ultimately bogged down by a studio that wanted to turn it into a long trailer for THE AVENGERS. COWBOYS AND ALIENS looked like such an overstuffed mess that I didn't even bother seeing it.
In CHEF, though- which is the movie he made when he walked away from directing for Disney/Marvel Studios- Favreau told a story that could be seen as a direct metaphor for his filmmaking career. It told the tale of a chef that was filled with promise, achieved lots of early success, who somehow ended up working for a major brand-name restaurant. While he was treated like a star, eventually his work grew stale. The menu became boring, food critics that once lauded him now turned on him, and his boss became increasingly involved in his decision-making- outright making demands he do things a certain way and not branch out. Sound familiar?
His character then walks away from it all. He's lost. His future is uncertain. He's not even sure who he is anymore. Ultimately, he starts a food truck. From the bright lights of the Los Angeles restaurant scene, to a food truck where he makes Cuban sandwiches. But, oddly enough, it's in operating this food truck that he finds his voice again. He drives across the country, with his son, crafting unique menus and sandwiches to rapturous responses. Along the way, he and his boy become closer than they've ever been, his inspiration is reignited, he wins back the critics, and he ends up returning to LA and opening his own restaurant: El Jefe.
If we are to follow the metaphors of the film, the implication is that CHEF was Favreau's food truck, and he was hoping to return to the realm of making big studio pictures with a renewed sense of vigor and independence, which would mean his next film would be his EL JEFE.
Which brings us to the question: Is THE JUNGLE BOOK Favreau's EL JEFE?
Read on to find out, as it's now time for...
THE JUNGLE BOOK is a jaw-droppingly beautiful film. From the moment the film starts, you'll feel like you're walking around in a painting. There are no opening credits, as director Jon Favreau opts to transition directly from the opening Disney title card to a sweeping shot of the jungle, transporting us to where we're going to spend the next two hours. Using a brief bit of narration, the tone is set that we're about to watch Rudyard Kipling's classic tale come to life.
We meet Mowgli, played by newcomer Neel Sethi, a young boy who was raised by wolves. Some time is spent establishing the power structure of the jungle, and how other animals view the "human cub." There's been a massive drought, and it's forced all of the animals of the kingdom to call a truce and pull towards the common goal of survival- creating strange bedfellows where crocodiles coexist with the kinds of smaller creatures they'd usually snap up in an instant, for example. However, with Mowgli creeping towards manhood, the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) makes it clear that once the drought ends, and the rains come, the truce is over and Mowgli must be killed before he grows into a man. See, men are viewed as evil in the animal kingdom- mainly because of The Red Flower (fire), which causes mass destruction.
Shere Khan, in particular, has been scarred and disfigured by The Red Flower- and he did so while attacking Mowgli's father. He wants to finish the job and eliminate Mowgli before he inevitably ruins their jungle home.
Mowgli, in the meantime, has become notorious amongst his animal kin for using his innate human sense of ingenuity to create tools and mechanisms to make jungle life easier. He invents tools and rudimentary machinery to do things like collect water. He's constantly told, though, not to use such "tricks" as they are not the way of the jungle.
When the rains inevitably come, Mowgli realizes that Shere Khan is going to come for him- and will stop at nothing, even killing the wolves that have raised him- so he makes the painful decision to leave. Aided by the panther that brought him as an orphan toddler to the wolves, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), he sets off to find a human village. Along the way, they become separated as Shere Khan pursues them, and Mowgli ends up having an eye-opening journey. He learns valuable lessons about life, like when the terrifying snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) pretends to be his friend while having her own sinister intentions, or how a true friend can help you cultivate your innate abilities to wonderful effect- Which is what the bear Baloo (Bill Murray) does.
It's a very simple, very traditional story structure, and I won't spoil the ending for you, but- as usual- it's the way we get from Point A to Point B that really matters. Almost like how James Cameron used incredible visuals in AVATAR to tell a very familiar story, Favreau uses potent Hollywood magic to make Mowgli's story come to life. I could've spent hours watching Mowgli and Baloo go on adventures together, or watching the boy work his way out of tricky situations using his own guile. It doesn't hurt, of course, that you have incredible actors like Murray, Kingsley, and Elba lending spirited voice performances to the proceedings.
There are tons of great metaphors for life in the film, and great little twists and turns- including a howler of a scene featuring Christopher Walken as a kind of "mob boss" ape, King Louie. But Favreau doesn't ever allow the film to become too didactic. The moral lessons and allegories are there, but you're not hit over the head by them. You can see the deeper meanings, or you can drool at the luminescent storytelling.
If there's anything negative to say- and this isn't even negative, really- is that this is definitely a children's film. The story itself is so simple, and resolves in such a fairly straightforward way- leading to a classic Disney happy ending- that you know that the target audience for THE JUNGLE BOOK is children. Great if you're taking your kids, or going with family, but probably not so hot if you were hoping that the director of IRON MAN was going to offer a more complex, grown-up take on the material.
This is kiddy fare, but hey, it's great kiddy fare.
Oh, and it's also the first film I can think of since PACIFIC RIM that downright demands that you see it in IMAX 3D, or a format of similar ilk. Spend the extra money. You won't regret it. I'm notorious for avoiding 3D versions of movies because I think they're lazy and awful. THE JUNGLE BOOK, however, I can't imagine seeing any other way.
THE JUNGLE BOOK is a lush, beautiful, children's epic, and one of the best 3D/IMAX cinematic experiences you're likely to partake in for a long, long time.
And for those of you that read the first part: Yes, THE JUNGLE BOOK is Favreau's EL JEFE. It's a triumphant return to big-time filmmaking for the writer-director, and another example of his range. He can seemingly do anything. He's succeeded with family comedy (ELF), adult comedy (SWINGERS), blockbuster action (IRON MAN), small human dramedy (CHEF) with zero visual effects, and now he's got a full-blown children's epic that is 95% visual effects.
Favreau being back in the tentpole-filmmaking arena makes me really wish Colin Trevorrow hadn't already been hired to direct STAR WARS: EPISODE IX.