Put aside any fond remembrance you might have for Disney’s original animated Jungle Book. The new take on Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale is an absolutely thrilling adventure.
Young Mowgli (Neel Sethi) has been raised by wolves Raksha and Akeyla (Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito) and tutored by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), a panther, so it’s natural that he feels at home in the jungle. Unfortunately, the scarred tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) has determined that the boy will be his.
The ultimatum is delivered during a water truce – a point during the dry season when a certain rock formation is revealed as river waters dwindle – and Bagheera decides that the only way for Mowgli to survive is for him to be taken to the man village.
Shere Khan’s hatred stems from having been burned by man’s red flower (fire) and it is pathological – not to mention connected to the orphan man cub.
As Bagheera and Mowgli travel toward the man village, they are stalked by Shere Khan and get separated. A misadventure with the seductive snake Kaa (Scarlet Johannson) leads to Mowgli’s meeting Baloo (Bill Murray) the bear.
In attempting to help Baloo, Mowgli winds up facing King Louis (Christopher Walken), the giant orangutan who lives in a long abandoned temple.
How Mowgli moves from one situation to another is handled well, but is more a collection of episodes connected by the slimmest of plot threads – and that doesn’t matter one bit.
What matters is that Mowgli is a boy who is ripped from his family pack of wolves and between the native abilities of his animal friends and his ‘tricks’ (the boy is a clever inventor) finds his way back to them not as a wolf, but a unique individual.
While the vocal performances of the all-star cast are quite brilliant, they wouldn’t be nearly as effective as they are if the animals weren’t phot real and moved properly. The CGI in The Jungle Book are beyond impressive – watching Bagheera ripple along exactly like a real panther, or Shere Khan stalk and pounce is a breathtaking experience (especially in the extremely well done 3D).
Just as important is the way the animals’ speech seems as natural as their movement – something that should feel wrong but doesn’t.
Sethi makes a terrific Mowgli – something that must have been a challenge since he’s the only ‘real’ part of the movie (the end credits close with the note that ‘This movie was shot entirely in downtown Los Angeles). It probably helps that reference figures were created for the film by the Jim Henson Creature Shop.
The script is sharp enough that when Baloo breaks into The Bare Necessities – and King Louis sets into I Wanna Be Like You – it feels completely natural. It also helps that Murray and Walken know how to sell unusual moments.
Adapted by Justin Marks and directed by Jon Favreau, The Jungle Book is (like Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella before it) even better than the previous Disney version. In fact, it’s pure Disney magic.
Final Grade: A+
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios