It seems good a time as any to bring a beloved book to life on the big screen. Nevermind originality, Disney’s 60s era animated adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is ripe for a live-action cinematic rendering, and with the most realistic of computer-generated animals, and what sure do sound like the perfect voices, more or less.
With energy and some wise tweaks to its 1967 version, Jon Favreau brings the story of a young boy raised by wolves to life. A song here and there, humour and cookie-cutter wisdom, and a palpable anxiety make up this faithful, beautiful retelling that relies on powerful visuals to create wonder.
Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi, and the only human) is coming to the age where his presence in nature is unnerving some in the animal kingdom. He has been regarded as a wolf (a man-cub), and while his skills and strengths are markedly different than his siblings, he follows in line with the laws of the jungle and respects the world around him, as instructed by the wise alpha wolf Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and his partner Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o).
But Mowgli comes to bother one figure in particular, and perhaps that’s because a drought has dampened the food supply, or perhaps he’s just bored. It likely also has something to do with having been scarred by man with fire (the red flower), so Shere Khan, a menacing Bengal tiger voice by the menacing Idris Elba is ready to banish the man-club. Or eat him. Whatever works.
Well Akela makes a tough decision, listening to the guidance of the black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), Mowgli’s mentor and protector. The man-cub is resigned to live with humans, but the journey doesn’t go quite as planned, with Shere Khan reneging on his peace accord and Mowgli stumbling upon an lazy, opportunistic bear named Baloo (Bill Murray). There are some not so nice critters too: the serpent seductress Kaa (Scarlett Johannson) and the massive Orangutuan King Louie (Christopher Walken).
As familiar as the story may be, it unfolds with wonder and joy; animals are gorgeously rendered, physically imposing and always bristling, whether in the mud, the light, the rain, and the chaos. King Louise is far larger than animated predecessor, while the elephants Mowgli and Bagheera stumble across are majestic and to be revered.
It’s easy to get lost in the scenery, and after that, the sounds and voices that accompany the lush backgrounds. Elba’s voice is intimidating enough, but Shere Khan’s slow movement, his lurking nature makes him immediately a terrifying villain. Each actor seems so perfectly suited to their character, almost too much though. It’s less about what they’re saying, but just that they are saying something at all, lending a sound to a famed character. As we progress, it becomes more and more distracting – Bill Murray is a great companion, and Johannson indeed a temptress, and then it just gets silly with Walken as a greedy monarch. These three aren’t characters so much as themselves; Shere Khan and Bagheera, they have weight.
Nevertheless, The Jungle Book hits all its marks, effectively blending humour and heart and action, as Favreau as proved so adept at in the past. It tries to hint at greater meaning; humans have caused some problems in the jungle, but some humans can help too. The prevailing theme though is that of beauty and fun. A finale is tense and stunning, and this colourful retelling is simple and joyous; exactly what it needs to be.