Last year I asked on this very blog what Disney were playing at in remaking their animated back catalogue. I might have to eat my words soon because I’ve really liked most of this production cycle. MALEFICENT was reprehensible but CINDERELLA was well-appointed and now THE JUNGLE BOOK is the latest roaring success.
In a re-telling midway between Rudyard and Walt, Man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) reluctantly leaves his jungle home guided by Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley) to rejoin his own kind after a threat from ferocious tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba). His journey will not be an easy one, his story will captivate generations to come.
What a cast director Jon Favreau has assembled. Newcomer Neel Sethi makes an intuitive and mischievous Mowgli and grounds the effects-heavy story well. The impressive voice talent includes a crooning Baloo (Bill Murray); Kingsley’s boarding school master Bagheera; Elba’s seething thug Shere Khan and King Louie by way of The Godfather (Christopher Walken). Kingsley’s honeyed and authoritative narration is the perfect glue for this story and both establishes the rules of this world and underlines the moral content in the most elegant manner possible.
The entirely CGI jungle (based on real-world photographic reference material) is photo-real, the animals and their interaction with Mowgli are totally convincing and always compelling. For all the fun, very real dangers are in evidence too – we witness first-hand how much destruction fire or the “red flower” as the animals call it causes and the fights between animals are about as brutal as you could get away with in a Disney film, cutting before you actually see mortal injuries even though you know exactly how much damage these teeth and claws are doing.
The classic songs are there at key moments, with Murray doing a fun rendition of “The Bare Necessities” as a lounge track and King Louie using “I wanna be like you” as an elaborate threat. Murray’s love of performing comes across, but Walken basically speak-sings his number (tweaked by Robert Sherman himself to somehow work Gigantopithecus into rhyme) allowing for little jazzy foot-tapping but ample opportunity for Walken to intimidate and impart some far more sinister implications. I would warn that the King Louie scene might be a little intense for your littlest ones, but elsewhere there are some decent jump scares to keep them lively. Stay through the credits for some nice musical surprises as well.
I like the idea of leaving the elephants as unknown elementals, respected and feared by most and appropriately deified for the story’s setting. I also liked that man remained an enigma and that when Mowgli finally finds his way back to his own kind he sees them just like the furrier inhabitants of the jungle do – horrific shapes silhouetted against fierce firelight. I never expected Baloo to come out with a politics joke for the parents and neither did I expect to find a reference to CASABLANCA here, but Baloo lying to Mowgli about his feelings to save him towards the end of the film is just what that key scene is.
It’s not perfect by any means. An innuendo-filled scene of Baloo and his jungle pals watching Mowgli do their dirty work feels a little cheap and I don’t really think Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) piling on exposition through “trust in me” hypnosis really works either – stylistically it doesn’t really match the rest of the film and it implies the serpent is a little too omnipotent.
The Jungle Book is a treat for all the family and should please fans of Disney’s iconic animation and Rudyard Kipling’s fables alike. Favreau’s film is visually splendorous, emotionally affecting and hugely entertaining throughout. If this is any indication of the quality of Disney’s future re-adaptations, their dominance of the film and entertainment industry will likely continue for a long while yet, and that might not be a bad thing. SSP