Heretical as it may be to say it, I was never really that big a fan of Disney’s The Jungle Book as a child. Mine was the era of the Disney Renaissance and, although I knew the words to the songs off by heart, I never really felt that The Jungle Book was in the same league. We’re now at a time where Disney are remaking a number of their classic animated features in live-action format, and The Jungle Book has undergone this treatment. Fortunately, this film is completely magical – there is such a level of creativity here that you are guaranteed to be wowed.
The man cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) has been raised by a family of wolves since birth, but he is forced to flee the only home he has ever known when fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) announces his intention to hunt and kill him. He is guided by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), a no-nonsense panther, and Baloo (Bill Murray), a free-spirited bear, and meets a wide array of jungle animals – a slithery hypnotic python (Scarlett Johansson) and a smooth-talking giant ape (Christopher Walken). Along the way, Mowgli learns valuable life lessons and his epic journey of self-discovery leads to fun and adventure, before he must face his enemy once and for all.
Now, you may ask what the point of bothering to remake The Jungle Book at all is, but the fifty years have enabled advances in technology that can bring animals to life with almost photo-realism. The magic is there even as they speak – characters such as Shere Khan and Bagheera exude such physical presence that they could quite easily be mistaken for the real thing.
It is also puts halt to any fear of a shot-for-shot remake by incorporating more of Rudyard Kipling’s tale into the story – the Water Truce and the Law of the Jungle both are important parts of this film – and it carries a more adult and darker tone than the original. It is not dour by any means but, whereas the animated film is all fun throughout, the threat of death is always ever-present in this movie.
This new Jungle Book is not a musical, but it does contain two musical numbers – Disney staples ‘The Bare Necessities’ and ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ – and deploys them with aplomb. It is possible that these shifts to song may jar with some viewers, but I found them charming and fun. The second song does not quite stem as organically as the first one, and it seems a bit of a shame that the movie didn’t really want to commit to its musical roots, but there you go.
A lot of credit must go to Neel Sethi in this – he is the only real thing on-screen throughout the movie, and he needed to do a good job or the film simply wouldn’t have gelled properly. There are moments when he is clearly struggling against the green screen, and some of his line readings don’t seem as natural as they should, but his eagerness and his naturalness before the camera do him credit.
He is backed up by a fantastic supporting cast – Bill Murray is, of course, fantastic as Baloo, portraying him rather like a used-car salesman with heart, and he offers a lot of the film’s laughs. Johansson’s Kaa is bewitchingly seductive (hearing her song in the end credits, rather like a lounge singer) and Lupita Nyong’o provides a quiet and emotional dignity to Raksha, the mother wolf. Elba prowls through the film, nice and sinister, and Christopher Walken is Christopher Walken – your opinion of that is an individual one.
The Jungle Book is proof that when a source is tackled with love and wonder, the end result can be something special. It is shot beautifully, visually stunning and absolutely captivating – a treat for all the family.
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Neel Sethi (Mowgli), Bill Murray (Baloo), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera), Idris Elba (Shere Khan), Lupita Nyong’o (Raksha), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa)
Running Time: 105 Mins