Let’s face it, as much as Walt Disney’s original remains a relentless classic, I don’t think anyone today can really qualify it as a particularly great film, and certainly not a good adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories. It’s a grand old time certainly, and remains a good experience for any first time viewer, but leaves little incentive to revisit. Well, director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) has taken it upon himself to do just that, returning to both the animation icon and the original text to mine the magic of their respective imaginations, and the result is now here. In this age of Disney ‘reintroducing’ its most highly recognized properties, can ‘The Jungle Book’ tell a truly wild story?
Yes. Yes it can, and it does, relentlessly.
Mowgli, a ‘man-cub’ raised by wolves in the dense Indian jungle, finds himself targeted by the feared Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba). Rather than see the pack that nurtured him divide over his fate, Mowgli sets out with the company of Bagheera the black panther (Sir Ben Kingsley) to find a sense of belonging elsewhere that will be safer for all. But no matter where the boy goes or whom he meets, including Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), Shere Khan will stop at nothing until Mowgli is dead.
This is not the same jungle you may remember, you may be starting to realize. It’s very familiar to be sure, with its colours and characters and colourful characters, but in translating the old story into cinema’s most realistic rendition yet, Favreau captures not just the magic and mayhem of past forays into this wilderness, but the mystery and menace that has always underlined Kipling’s creation. Just the very design of the environments in this film is spectacular, from Kaa the Snake’s (Scarlett Johansson) murky nest high in the trees to King Louie’s ruined temple home, everything a viscerally visual feast and all of it a testament to the potential of computer-generated world building. Frankly, it’s remarkable so much of the film can feel as warm and endearing and persistently family-friendly as it does given the engagement with a much more grounded and gritty view of jungle life. Dark, but not bleak, colourful but not cartoony, this may not be quite the same jungle anymore but it’s certainly a far richer and more engaging one.
For all its tantalising environments and effects however, this film was always going to live or die on its characters. Here, above everything else, is where this film really hits it out of the park, a triumph it owes in equal measure to the aptitude of its cast members and the brilliance of the visual effects which bring these characters to remarkable photorealistic life.
It’s probably safe to assume that Baloo is and always has been Bill Murray’s spirit animal, so naturally does it feel to hear his voice come out of that oversized snout. To be fair, pretty much all of the animals (characters or background) are blown up a few sizes and the result is doubly effective, giving us a clear look at their incredible detail whilst subtly capturing a sense of a child’s perspective, to whom all such birds and beasts may feel somewhat giant, especially in such situations as Mowgli finds himself. Kingsley too is an exceptionally fitting voice for Bagheera, arguably adding greater emotional depth than Sebastian Cabot ever did, and the film certainly affords more opportunities for action and heroism than he was previously known for. Likewise, Christopher Walken as King Louie the ‘Gigantopithecus’ (since orang-utans aren’t actually native to India) was a brilliant casting decision, although you may be surprised just how much he tones down his distinctively peculiar intonations in favour of conveying a very real threat to Mowgli and co.
Gone also is the slippery charm of Kaa the ‘Sounds Suspiciously like Winnie the Pooh’ serpent, in its place the sufficiently sultry hiss of Scarlett Johansson’s predator, and with the bonus of an added subplot centring on Mowgli’s wolf comes the talents of Lupita N’yongo as Raksha. I never thought a wolf could pack an emotional punch. But when it comes to determining the real show-stealer here, no one can top Idris Elba and his astounding performance as the malevolent, malicious Bengal tiger. No more of George Sanders as just a Bond villain in fur and stripes, this film lets Shere Khan be a true beast in every sense of the word, and Elba brings to the game such a powerful sense of the tiger’s rage, its relentlessness, all barely contained beneath a veneer of a cold and calculating mind. The film does little in general to shy away from the brutality and danger of life in the jungle. Shere Khan is that peril incarnate, and his threat almost single-handedly drives the entirety of the film. I’ll be the first to admit that beforehand I thought Benedict Cumberbatch would be the obvious choice after his turn as J.R.R Tolkien’s gold-hoarding dragon. Now I know I could not have been more wrong.
And last but absolutely not least is Mowgli himself, Neel Suthi making his feature film debut at just ten years old. This kid I guarantee you will be on rising star lists everywhere over the next couple of years. He. Is. Mowgli. In fact, even that is a bit of a disservice to him as the original Mowgli was to be fair little more than a whine factory, and ironically enough never felt like the main character in his own film. With Suthi in the role, this is the best onscreen Mowgli yet. His is a far more heroic Mowgli than we’re accustomed to, one with an acute sense of responsibility for his actions, who actually listens to his peers and elders without immediately jumping into a petulant strop, though before you may think the film has portrayed him as unrealistically capable beyond his years, Suthi is just as competent at conveying that wide-eyed wonder of a child out in the wide world. His is a Mowgli to truly root for, a Mowgli with genuine emotional depth, a hero with problems but more importantly a resolve to overcome them. Walt Disney himself, who died during the production of the original animation, could not have created a finer role model for younger audiences.
Is the film perfect? No, like most films. Ironically, as well suited as Bill Murray is to Baloo, strangely enough his performance seems to lack some of the palpable energy that made the character as kinetic as it was under Phil Harris, and that’s including the film’s somewhat shameless flirtation with that iconic tune about the good life he leads. At least that one has a sense of purpose and a place within the broader goings on of the film, unlike another musical moment that enjoys next to no setup, has no purpose outside of fan service, and ultimately detracts from the scene in general. And if there is anything negative to be said about Suthi in the role of Mowgli, it can be entirely confined to the sentiment that as enthusiastic as his efforts are, singing may not be in his future.
Aside from these minor issues however, Favreau’s ‘The Jungle Book’ is a pure delight. At a running time of 1hr 45mins, the story never feels at all bloated and the pacing keeps things going at just the right speed. What changes have been made from the animated version will vary in noticeability depending on your own familiarity, but not one of these changes impacts negatively on the production, indeed they often mark substantial improvements or inspired alternative ideas. The elephant patrol of Colonel Hathi may be missing for instance, but don’t worry. The film uses that particular herd in an especially memorable and outright beautiful manner. If anything, whilst Shere Khan embodies the danger of the jungle, the elephants are its majesty.
We all love the original for the cabaret extravaganza it is, but at long last we have an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s fantastically imaginative landscape that feels sincere, faithful, fun and above all in this day and age it feels worthwhile. We’re seeing a lot of remakes and sequels and reboots these days and whilst the scarcity of originality in the film industry remains an issue, it’s films like this that remind us of the potential every film has to at least have a refreshing and different take on its subject, even if the subject has been done before.
Final Score: 4/5