The Jungle Book rests on the shoulders of Mowgli. He’s the human we relate to. It’s through Mowgli that we see danger, and fear man’s “red flower”. His human error can be found in how he trusts those that wish to hurt him and his instinctive nature to create and build things is in his bones.
Jon Favreau, directing another Disney live-action adaptation after Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, knows that in this jungle adventure, Mowgli is key. Indeed, actor Neel Sethi is magnificent, simultaneously holding the posture of his cartoon counterpart and holding the human heart that beats throughout this tale of support, friendship and growing-up.
Sharing the structure of the Disney classic, The Jungle Book even squeezes in your favourite tunes: “I Wan’na Be Like You” and, of course, “The Bare Necessities”. From the first moment the pace is set as Mowgli races with his wolf brothers from a panther. This panther is Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Narrating, Bagheera rescued him and found the toddler a wolf mother in Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). The warmth and loyalty between the wolf pack binds them together and instills a sense of solidarity and loyalty in the man cub. But Mowgli is being hunted by Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a scarred tiger, acutely aware of the danger humans can inflict. A water truce gathers the animals together around a small hole and Shere Khan threatens the wolves if they don’t release Mowgli. With the protection of Bagheera, the boy decides to depart the pack and make his way back to the man village.
From this point, we know who we’ll meet and where we’ll go. The hypnotic snake, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), King Louie (Christopher Walken) and Baloo (Bill Murray) are waiting in the wings and with an intimate knowledge of the story, we anticipate their arrival. The Jungle Book ensures that every arrival is exciting, full of fun and deeply memorable. Crucially, each role is expertly cast. Idris Elba’s deep voice booms and realises the truly terrifying nature of the tiger. In one moment, he simply paces on the horizon and, with John Debney’s rousing score, turns his cat-like grace into a sinister display of dominance; Elba’s London lilt only tops it off. Though Elba is often touted as the next James Bond, after his interpretation of Shere Khan, I’d prefer to see him as a slippery villain. Scarlett Johansson’s sssleazy sssnake, memorably lures us into her trap through her low, sultry voice. Finally, it would be remiss to not mention Bill Murray in what will become an unforgettable moment in his career. Be excited and reliably trust his relaxed, gravelly demeanour: no one else could replace Phil Harris’ Baloo, except Murray.
The Jungle Book is an outstanding achievement. The songs jar slightly perhaps, as audiences are so familiar with the originals. Chris Walken’s Godfather-like King Louie track, ‘I Wan’na Be Like You’, fails to have the energy and swing it had. But what makes The Jungle Book such a mesmerizing experience is how seamless the CGI is. There was a time that CGI was clunky and false. Now, grizzly bears swimming down river on their back, as both child and bear sing joyously, is thoroughly effective and infectiously filled with laughter and fun. But it’s not without its bite. As Shere Khan smashes through branches and leaps out of the screen, you’ll be holding a hand up to shield your face. This phase of adaptation in the Disney canon reeks of desperate barrel-scraping, but The Jungle Book not only proves how innovative it can be but also sets the bar for future remakes; The Lion King? The Aristocats? 101 Dalmations? Suddenly the potential of these seem endlessly exciting. The Jungle Book is a roaring success and kids will devour this modern take on a classic “tail”.
Originally published at http://www.flickeringmyth.com in April 2016