Magazine | May 9, 2016, Issue

Hollywood’s Great Jungle

If you want to have a sunny view of Hollywood, to believe that sometimes it’s actually the kind of place where talented people can have happy lives making movies that the whole family can enjoy, one place to look would be the career of Jon Favreau.

Favreau is a heavyset, long-faced Italian-Jewish guy from Queens who made his way west after dropping out of college to try to make a career in comedy. He did stand-up, landed a few small movie roles, and then had a big break: He wrote and starred in (and, crucially, helped cast his friend Vince Vaughn in) a little movie called “Swingers,” about guys like him hanging out in Los Angeles, that cost $200,000 to make and turned into a film that every late-1990s college male would see at least 16 times. (Seventeen in my case, I think.)

Swingers turned Favreau into an indie cult figure and a minor movie star. But instead of following Vaughn and chasing big-time stardom or simply hanging out, Parker Posey–style, in the indie realm, he pivoted to mainstream directing in the early 2000s and turned himself into a very reliable, very capable maker of big-budget, non-edgy, yet often excellent movies.

But he didn’t make them all that often, which left him with the time and space to maintain what seems like a kind of Hollywood dream life: He’s married with three kids (no messy affairs or Affleck-style meltdowns), he executive-produces genre TV shows, he acts in a couple of movies every year, and then every few years he directs a movie that tends to make a lot of money. He’s had duds, of course (see Cowboys and Aliens, or, better, don’t), but he’s also given us the best Christmas movie of the 21st century in Elf, one of the best superhero movies in Iron Man — and now, in The Jungle Book, a movie that’s already doing staggering business, and deserves it.

First, it’s an extraordinary technological feat: a “live action” movie in which the creatures and jungles were all whipped together seamlessly by computers but the uncanny-valley phenomenon is mostly absent and the awe of real nature is remarkably preserved. In terms of immersiveness and plausibility, the closest cinematic comparison to the landscape Favreau conjures is probably the planet Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar. The technology was younger then, but Avatar was portraying an alien world, which made an air of artificiality expected and forgivable. Because we all know what a tiger looks like, The Jungle Book lacks that safety net. And it doesn’t need it: There is a dream-like seamlessness to the finished product, but what’s being dreamed feels like Rudyard Kipling’s world, not some sort of dismal computerized copy.

It’s not entirely Kipling’s, of course: No 21st-century movie marketed to children would dare to channel fully his stoic Anglo-Indian worldview, and the film’s reviewers have mostly done their due diligence and made sure that any favorable reference to his stories is balanced by a “to be sure” dig at his imperialism and lack of environmentalist enlightenment.

But Favreau plainly set out to inject more Kipling than was present in the last famous Disney iteration of the story, to strike a balance between the stern source material and the shaggy-dog picaresque of the late-1960s cartoon. So fans of the latter get a lazy, hustling Baloo (Bill Murray) who does, in fact, sing a version of “The Bare Necessities,” and a Louie the Monkey King (Christopher Walken) who updates “I Wanna Be Like You.” But the Kipling worldview is more fully realized this time — the hierarchies and mysteries of the jungle, the role of its law, and the ruthlessness of its denizens.

One denizen, in particular: the mighty Shere Khan, who is voiced by Idris Elba in a perfect mix of voice work and virtual embodiment, and who gets several of the movie’s best speeches, several eloquent (if self-interested) briefs against man-cubs and Mankind. His work is matched by Ben Kingsley as the panther Bagheera and Lupita Nyong’o as the wolf matriarch Raksha, and their confrontations with the tiger have an edge, an adult thrill, that belongs squarely in the jungle as Kipling saw it: perilous, serious, a myth unto itself.

The only place where I wished the movie had a touch more Kipling was in its Mowgli. As embodied by a warm, wide-faced Neel Sethi, he’s the only “really real” thing in the movie, and his work is just fine — never distracting, sometimes charming, fine. But he still feels a touch too modern in his intonations, a little too informal and relaxed for a boy supposedly reared in the wolfpack and schooled by Bagheera. When he recites the poetry of his upbringing — “For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf / and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack” — he should sound a little more like a would-be soldier, and a little less like a kid.

But then again Favreau is making a crowdpleaser, not a Kipling-fan-pleaser. And since most kids will have no trouble following this Mowgli into the jungle, one of Hollywood’s most likeable entertainers has once again justified his success.

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