The Jungle Book Review
It would be so easy to be cynical about Disney at the moment. After last year’s alright but not especially amazing Cinderella the prospect of them just remaking their animated films as live action might feel like an easy cash-grab that requires minimal creative effort. However there can be benefits in letting a modern director look at a familiar tale with a new perspective. The Jungle Book, directed by [/i]Iron Man’s[/i] Jon Favreau, takes the charm of the original 1967 animated film and the life and sense of story of Rudyard Kipling’s novel and weaves them into a genuinely thrilling and visually stunning family film. And yes, he did keep a few of the songs.
The plot is simple and well known; a “man cub” named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is raised in the jungle by the wolf pack, but when the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) threatens Mowgli’s life the bog must leave the jungle with the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and return to the world of men. Along their journey Mowgli meets many animals such as Kaa the snake (Scarlett Johansson), Louie, King of the monkeys (Christopher Walken), and Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) , but Shere Khan is willing to do anything to draw the man cub back into his claws.
The Disney classics are classics for a reason, we all know this. So how do you go about remaking something so well known and loved? Favreau’s take seems to one of bringing a narrative urgency to the story that wasn’t in the original. There is a sense of danger, of what is at stake both with Mowgli’s journey from the jungle and the well being of those he’s left behind who also come under threat from Shere Khan. Yet this never goes too far away from being family friendly or something that I think children won’t be able to watch. A connection to the original is also established through musical motifs from the original. The final result is something that is affectionate to what’s come before, but isn’t a direct copy. It’s a good balance.
Of course a lot of the film hinges on the performance of Mowgli, because if he doesn’t seem like he believes in the world around him then the audience won’t be able to. Thankfully Neel Sethi is a great young performer, engaging with the various animal characters in a way that is childish, likable, and entertaining; not an easy thing to achieve when you are the sole live action element in a fully computer generated environment. These are also possibly the most well rendered animals we’ve seen in a film like this. Other than the obvious factor of them being able to talk, there are lots of very natural little animal behaviours and quirks to the characters. It’s just something that adds to the overall effect of the film.
Needless to say all of the voice cast are spot-on. Ben Kingsley proves to be the natural choice of Bagheera, Lupita Nyong’o has a kind of sweet and beautiful strength as mama wolf Raksha, Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa is appropriately creepy (especially in a surround sound environment), and Christopher Walken as King Louie is one of those things that is just crazy enough to work. The real shining star as far as the voice performances go though is Idris Elba as Shere Khan. He brings a power and a danger to the role that embodies the character and I just think there is nobody who could have done it better than him. Of course there is another Jungle Book movie in the works; this one directed by the Supreme Leader of motion capture himself Andy Serkis. Whilst I have no doubts that the film will be a technical marvel the cast line-up, which includes Christian Bale as Bagheera, Cate Blanchett as Kaa, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan, doesn’t feel like as exciting and fitting as the one Favreau has assembled here. However for a comparison between the adaptations we’ll just have to wait until Serkis’ film, which has been pushed back to 2018, is released.
I didn’t go in expecting much from The Jungle Book, but I found myself won over by the sheer adventure and delight on screen. The classic version will always be a classic, but if you let yourself give this version a try, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.