To paraphrase Guns ‘n Roses: Welcome to the Jungle, and damn does it look good! Calling Disney’s latest cinematic version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale a live-action adaptation is a bit of a misnomer. In a near-miraculous employment of technology that beggars belief, the only “live” element that actually existed on the Los Angeles studio lot where director Jon Favreau worked his wizardry was young actor Neel Sethi as star Mowgli.
But using what is easily the very best CG I have ever had the pleasure of exposing my eyeballs to, Favreau brings to life these much beloved characters in a fashion so believable that you will completely forget that we’re you’re seeing is really not the sweltering jungles of India but rather a collection on bits and bytes merely existing on server hard drives. Not that this wholly astonishing, gawk-inducing technical accomplishment is only thing that Jungle Book has to offer though.
The House of Mouse had of course already adapted The Jungle Book in iconic animated fashion in 1967. As a child I watched that movie endlessly and have the characters, sights, sounds and songs indelibly etched on my brain. And even with that level of reverence, I would be willing to say that what Favreau has delivered here is just as good if not better. While the basic beats of the story play out the same, there are some new kinks to be found that keep things fresh.
Just like with the original, human baby Mowgli is discovered abandoned in the forest by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), who takes the “man-cub” to be raised by a pack of wolves, in this version led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita N’yongo). Mowgli grows up in an idyllic life with his lupine siblings, though Akela is not a fan of his un-wolfish “tricks” (actually small feats of engineering).
When a particularly brutal drought causes all the animals of the jungle to call a truce on their usual natural hunting order in order to gather at the last viable water hole, Mowgli finally gets to meet the wider animal kingdom. Unfortunately, the wider animal kingdom also gets to meet him. In particular, the feared bloodthirsty tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who had been left viciously scarred by a previous encounter with humans and their deadly “red flower” aka fire. Khan immediately takes affront at Mowgli, wanting to use him as a proxy to exact his bloody revenge on men, with the only thing (barely) holding his teeth and talons in check being the “water truce”.
Knowing the rains will return and bring with it the end of the truce, Bagheera decides to take Mowgli back to the nearest village, so that he can be safe with his fellow men. But the young boy is reluctant to leave behind the only home and family he’s ever known though, while Shere Khan is not one to wait on the plans of others. This sets into motion a grand adventure that sees Mowgli needing to overcome deathly dangers like the hypnotic snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), encountering larger than life (literally this time) characters like the gigantic King Louie (Christopher Walken), and making friends and learning all about the bear necessities of life with the lovable Baloo (Bill Murray). And yes, they still sing your favourite songs, all ripe to get stuck in your head for days.
Newcomer Sethi does a fine job as the rambunctious Mowgli – especially given that he’s literally just acting with nothing but markers on a green screen for most of the film – but it’s Favreau’s incredible voice cast that really excels. In particular, as Khan, Idris Elba is perfectly cast as he growls out every threatening line with a nerve-jangling timbre. Murray’s Baloo and Kingsley’s Bagheera are equally as impressive, with their warm and genial line delivery serving wonderfully to somehow make the already preternaturally real digital animals seem even more alive.
Unfortunately Johansson’s Kaa has notthing more than a single scene – not counting the end-credits song she provides – while Walken’s gangland boss accent initially just doesn’t quite gel (possibly due to the memory of the animated version). The latter does settle into it perfectly though, especially when Louie – who has now been changed from a normal orangutan to a towering gigantopithecus – goes on a destructive rampage allowing Walken to cut loose emotionally.
And there’s definitely plenty of other emotions on display as Favreau stages epic action beats which don’t just use of the film’s prodigious CG acumen – bolstered by impressive use of 3D – as flashy accoutrements, but to completely draw you into this living, breathing world. The script by screenwriter Justin Marks may have toned down just a tad on the original’s charming whimsy (although it has it’s fair share of chuckles and guffaws) but ups the dramatic stakes through some nailbiting setpieces and Elba’s hair-raisingly menacing but simultaneously mesmerizing turn as Khan.