THE JUNGLE BOOK
Dir: Jon Favreau
Starring Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Christopher Walken, Scarlett Johansson
4.5 STARS (out of 5)
Regardless of whether not you’ve read the original Rudyard Kipling book in its entirety, there’s a very good chance that you already know the story of Mowgli the man-cub and his jungle adventures fairly well already. Thanks to Disney’s original 1967 animated classic, the story and characters have pervaded popular culture to the point where just about everyone you meet over a certain age will be able to recognise the song ‘Bare Necessities’, let alone recite it line by line. Therefore, Disney was both hitting the ground running and playing with fire (or the red flower, as it were) by re-imagining the classic tale for a modern audience. The studio’s original take on Kipling’s seminal work is already almost fifty years old in itself, meaning that any changes were going to need to be big if they were to remain relevant – but not necessarily to entertain, as the original movie still holds up as fantastic Sunday afternoon family viewing.
This retelling sees Mowgli (Sethi), a young boy out in the jungle wilderness, raised by a tight-knit family of wolves and watched over by protective guardian Bagheera the panther (Kingsley). As he grows, he learns to appreciate what they deem the ‘law of the jungle’, and comes to appreciate the respect that various species of animal show each other during periods of peace – where prey and predator can drink together at a communal watering hole – however, there is one particular resident that feels the ‘man cub’ isn’t welcome in the jungle, and that is Shere Khan (Elba), an intimidating tiger with a reason for his spite against mankind. With this, talk turns to Mowgli potentially leaving his wolf family, and having decided to of his own accord, Bagheera agrees to accompany the young boy to the ‘man village’ on the other side of the jungle.
From here, Mowgli ventures forth into the wilderness and comes across a cast of colourful characters, many of whom are inspired by both Kipling’s novel and the original Disney adaptation – as the boy finds himself cut off from Bagheera, and learning that Shere Khan is baying for his blood. Along the way, Mowgli meets up with friendly rogue Baloo the bear (Murray), the deeply unnerving Kaa the snake (Johansson) and King Louie (Walken), a colossal gigantopithecus with a desire to create fire.
This adaptation is colossal – the world of the jungle and the locations Mowgli and company venture through are lush, grand and awe-inspiring – this is truly CG at its finest, raising the bar for many other movies to now follow suit. The animals are realistic in both design and movement, with a number of fight and chase scenes beautifully choreographed. This is a superb-looking movie, worth the price of 3D admission and sure to keep children enthralled throughout.
The movie benefits, too, from inspired casting. Bill Murray is the perfect choice as Baloo, a self-serving but ultimately humble and friendly bear who grows to appreciate Mowgli as a friend. Idris Elba plays Shere Khan with less of the pomp and circumstance that we’re used to, rather with a gritty snarl and acidic tongue that generates spectacular menace. Nyong’o offers genuine emotion as Raksha the wolf, as Mowgli’s mother figure – and you won’t know just how brilliant the casting of Christopher Walken is as King Louie until you’ve seen him in action – and singing. Johansson is deeply unsettling as a now female Kaa, and Kingsley proves to be the ideal sombre straight man in Bagheera.
However, particular plaudits must go to young Neel Sethi, who shines as the precocious and confident Mowgli, who faces danger and unknown threats throughout – and whom acted entirely against green screen animals for this feature. This, along with his ability to sell the man-cub to us as a naive but spirited and brave young boy, not only adds to the experience of watching the movie as a whole, but also speaks volumes for his acting talent. It’s likely (and hopeful) that we will see more from Sethi in the future following the immediate critical success of The Jungle Book.
The story has been altered in a number of ways that I won’t go into detail regarding here, but the changes that are made blend in perfectly with the themes of inclusiveness and respect that are taught throughout the movie. This is a film that teaches the necessity of respect for those around you, and this is frankly a message that needs to be taught more often. Zootopia sold a similar theme, albeit with different tangents, but even so – it’s great that this is a message being made in 2016 cinema. The characters of old, too, have been given character depth and development that must be applauded. This is a truly great script with dialogue to match.
The only downside to The Jungle Book as a whole is its tone – it’s a fantastic adventure with ups, downs, pathos, dread, terror and the like – and it makes for a great family movie. However, it really isn’t one for particularly young children, as when the movie gets dark, it gets very dark indeed – but it remembers to layer in songs and doesn’t really go over the top on whimsy or jokes – if anything, it’s overall not a miserable or brooding picture at all, as there is enough joy in the vast landscapes, the characters involved and the story with its lessons included – but this is not a ‘typical’ family movie. It doesn’t bow to easy humour or pop culture and, as a result, makes for a rather superb cinematic outing. Disney continue to fire on all cylinders with this being their second huge hit of the year, and I for one can’t wait to see what they bring with Moana in December.