A reimagining of a beloved classic film. An all-CGI environment. An all CGI cast except for one role to be played by a child actor making his acting debut. It’s not a recipe which inspires confidence, is it? All the more credit, then, to Director Jon Favreau, Cinematographer Bill Pope and the rest of the team at Disney for not only honouring the original movie but also delivering a magical, spellbinding and triumphantly new family classic.
Taking equal inspiration from the 1967 animated version and Rudyard Kipling’s original short stories, the tale of Mowgli the man-cub, raised by wolves comes to breathtaking life in this new adaptation. When Shere Khan the tiger returns to the jungle, he vows to kill Mowgli if he remains in the jungle so Bagheera the panther agrees to escort him to the nearest man-village.
The CGI wizardry on show is truly impressive, recreating the varied terrain of the Indian jungle and its many inhabitants flawlessly. While everything is created with a sense of realism, there’s just enough of a sprinkling of movie magic to give every one of Kipling’s characters an abundance of personality. The voice cast is note-perfect, from Idris Elba’s malevolently manipulative Shere Khan to Scarlett Johansson’s sultry and seductive Kaa. Helping Mowgli on his journey, Ben Kingsley is the perfect voice for the elegant and wise Bagheera and Bill Murray is so good as Baloo that he manages to escape the shadow of the late, great Phil Harris’ turn. Even relatively minor roles are given real impact by great vocals from Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito and Garry Shandling in his last acting role but it’s Christopher Walken who nearly breaks the movie with a wonderfully sly and knowing, Mafioso-inspired turn as King Louie. Against this starry backdrop, Neel Sethi’s debut is remarkably assured. Despite having little to work with save sock puppets and bluescreen, he manages to make everything believable and it’s through him that you’re transported to the ancient majesty and mystery of the jungle.
Although a darker, more mature interpretation of the story, this is still great family entertainment and although not a musical, it still finds time for three of the iconic animated version’s biggest numbers. There are those who strongly object to the work of Kipling, seemingly appalled that attitudes and social mores of more than a hundred years ago are at odds with their present-day sensibilities (and, no doubt, blind to the fact that in another hundred years or so their steadfast moral certainty will likely be viewed with similar disdain or horror) but there’s little obvious colonial or jingoistic subtext in this “Jungle Book” (although I’m sure you’ll find it if you really, really want to). Rather it focusses on the importance of family, community and the effects of man’s technological progress on the natural world. Wherever you stand on the view of the author of the original work, there’s no doubt “The Jungle Book” has raised the bar once again in terms of cinema’s visual storytelling abilities. I rarely endorse 3D showings but this is definitely one to see in 3D and, if you can, on an IMAX screen. It’s an intoxicating and enchanting old fashioned adventure, one you’ll want to immerse yourself in.