The Jungle Book directed by Jon Favreau is a great, warm-hearted, and generous spectacle. Ostensibly a remake of a Disney cartoon produced forty years ago, the film is, in fact, an intense adventure movie, more similar to the pictures in The Lord of the Rings cycle than to the easy-going animated 1967 feature. Although everything (with the exception of Mowgli) in the movie is computer-generated, the movie looks photographically realistic -- the animals have the actual texture and appearance of beasts that we might see in a National Geographic special and the jungle, although full of vertiginous heights and cascading waterfalls, looks like a real place. Indeed, the jungle has some of the hazy, primordial character of the jungles in paintings of the mid-Victorian sublime school -- for instance, Church's majestic view of the volcano Cotopaxi with its foreground dropping into an abyss occupied by a huge waterfall. (Probably, the inspiration for many of the landscape images are similar forests and mountains and muddy ravines in Peter Jackson's Middle Earth films.) The animals are not anthropomorphized -- the wolves have long spindly legs and alert canine eyes and some of them look more than a little mangy. It's more than a little incongruous to hear them speaking, since the animals are shown naturalistically, but, after a while, the audience is educated into this convention and we really don't notice that the beasts are constantly bickering or muttering among themselves.
The film's plot is an extended chase sequence. She Khan, a huge Bengal tiger, is the apex predator in the rain forest. The tiger has been disfigured by the "red flower" (fire as it is called by the animals) and, indeed, sustained his injuries at the hands of Mowgli's father before mauling the man to death. Mowgli escaped, was raised by a pack of wolves, and seems to be about 11 years old when the film begins. At a "water truce" called during dry season, (all animals can drink from a puddle around the normally submerged Peace Rock without fear of attack), the tiger threatens the wolves and demands that they surrender the "man-cub" to them. The wolves are willing to fight and die for the boy, but he leaves them, traveling with a black panther, and, later, a bear to an overlook above an Indian village. The notion is that Mowgli must return to his own kind. But Sher Khan intervenes and, ultimately, the animals league together to battle the tiger while a forest fire, inadvertently set by Mowgli, rages around them. The film is filled with bravura action sequences -- a huge cobra embraces Mowgli, hypnotizes him and, then, tries to swallow him alive; there are landslides and an orangutan, the size of King Kong, also threatens the little boy, demanding that he bring him the promethean fire that terrifies the other animals in the jungle. (Critics have noticed that the scenes with King Louie, who speaks with the voice of Christopher Walken, incorporate many of the mannerisms of Coppola's work with Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.) Many of these action sequences contain images of great, almost visionary power: in one scene, a herd of water buffalos charges down the flashflooding funnel of a muddy ravine. The tiger has spooked the herd of buffalo in which he knows that Mowgli is hiding. After a spectacular stampede, we see the great herd dispersing across a vast savannah, having emerged from the muddy chaos of the ravine, the animals slowing down, trotting this way and that in random groups, rain clouds scouring the distant horizon -- it's an image of breathtaking beauty. Similarly, at the height of the forest fire, a herd of elephants emerges from the darkness, the huge animals silhouetted on the cliff tops against the glare of the flames. The elephants use their tusks to divert the river and put out the fire, again a sequence of majestic splendor that is both brilliantly imagined and stunningly staged. The film is full of small incidental details -- clouds of butterflies in distant beams of light, tiny forest creatures scampering underfoot and a strange gymnastic landscape of twisted and gnarled trees. There are some defects with the film -- the battle between King Louie, the orangutang, and Mowgli with his protectors (the black panther and the bear) takes place in a crumbling Hindu temple sacred to Hanuman the monkey god, a sort of cross between a cathedral and Angkor Wat. Much of the battle scene involves the huge red orangutan trying to squeeze through narrow vertical passages to seize Mowgli. At the end of the film, the boy's final encounter with Sher Khan takes place within a sort of vast mangrove tree, a labyrinth of narrow passages and constricted spaces in which the tiger repeatedly gets caught -- it's the same general idea as the fight in the temple with the King Kong figure and this duplication of scenic effects lessens the power of the film's climax. Nonetheless. Favreau throws one astounding image after another at the audience: after King Louie has been immured in the collapsing Hindu temple, a thousand monkeys pour onto the ruins to desperately claw at the rocks to free the ruler from the fallen man-made mountain: it's a spectacular, moving, and unexpected bonus, a memorable image provided out of sheer generosity since the scene of the monkeys trying to rescue the orangutang is completely superfluous in terms of the film's plot. And this film is crammed with similar gifts.