Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken
Director: Jon Favreau
Several years ago, just after finishing the rightfully doomed Cowboys and Aliens, when Jon Favreau revealed he was working on a remake of the cherished Disney classic The Jungle Book it was fair to say a number of eyebrows were raised. There is no bigger ask, and no quicker way to find oneself on the director straight-to-DVD contact list, than to attempt to reproduce or dare we say, better, a film many see as an all-time classic.
Although Favreau has outspokenly endeavoured to be true to the original stories, the narrative is more a crossover between books and the original film. Mowgli (Sethi), a small boy raised by wolves, suddenly finds himself in mortal danger from the human-hating tiger Shere Khan who means to kill the boy before he can become a man. Mowgli has help from judicious black panther Bagheera (Kingsley) and sleepy brown bear Baloo (Murray) as he tries to get back to the man village before Khan can catch up with them.
Due to Favreau’s leaning towards to the original Kipling books, it is a noticeably darker affair than the original Disney outing and laughs and fun are much scarcer; there are no banana-bikini clad monkey-impersonating Baloo’s here. Baloo does add a little bit of light heartedness on occasion but other than that, Favreau’s narrative concentrations are much closer to the primary menacing adventure story rather than the joke-filled 1967 movie.
Sethi is simply brilliant as Mowgli. Considering he must have been surrounded by green screen for months on end, his connection with the CGI creations is simply stunning. He manages to match the original Mowgli’s wolf-like patter perfectly and skilfully ties together the brave, mischievous man-cub to the lonely panicked little boy. Murray works well as Baloo although at times, as with most Murray characters, it feels like Baloo is working well as Bill Murray. Kingsley’s calm English dialect soothes affairs along nicely as suave Bagheera and Elba fits the deadly calculation of Shere Khan perfectly. It’s Walken’s remodelled King Louie (who was not in the original Kipling book, was added to the original film as an Orangutan then swapped for a Gigantopithecus by Favreau due to Orangutan’s natural habitat being south Asian islands and not the Indian jungle…and breathe) which is the ace in the pack. Walken’s seventies New York gangster accent and oversized appearance works tremendously and is one of the high points of the movie.
The CGI here is astonishing and works with the film rather than against it. Favreau’s decision to remake one of Disney’s most adored movies almost entirely with computerised characters must have had George Lucas frantically faxing a review of The Phantom Menace to the studio, but at no point does the movie come across as fake or estranging.
The only moments of dislocation are when the original songs are planted into proceedings. The Jungle Book version 2 is not a musical by any stretch of the imagination and, although Murray’s spoken word version of Bear Necessities works tolerably as a nod to the original, Walken’s sudden break into I Wanna Be Like You feels clumsy from a ferocious house-sized mobster ape.
For the benefit of those with smaller children, it’s worth noting that The Jungle Book must stand proudly at the fright-level summit of PG certification. Shere Khan’s sudden unexpected pounces toward the screen had most parents instinctively reaching a protective arm around their little one’s shoulders, so a trial trailer run at home for the wee ones may not be a bad strategy.
It will be a surprise to many but The Jungle Book works exceedingly well. Favreau took on a huge risk with this project but has managed to produce one of the year’s best family movies. The real trick is that at no point does it feel like a remake and will happily stand side-by-side with the original movie without either receiving too many squashed toes.
7 / 10