As with all directors who had the unenviable tasks of remaking classic movies, Jon Favreau had to recapture the spirit of 1967’s “The Jungle Book” without making his iteration feel redundant. It’s a pleasure to say that he does, in fact, succeed by all accounts, tearing through the boundaries of computer-generated effects in a thoughtful, magical fairy tale that offers spectacle and character in equal measure.
It begins with jungle boy Mowgli, played by spry, energetic and magnetic newcomer Neel Sethi, struggling to fit in with his family, a pack of wolves. When the monstrous tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) threatens to kill the wolves if they do not sacrifice the “man-cub,” the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) offers to take him to safety in a village of his own kind.
From there, an imaginative, fresh reinvention of Mowgli’s adventure proceeds, and what a gripping one it is. The Indian jungle is a fully realized world filled with joyous, colorful wonder and scary, dangerous obstacles and villains. All the animals, from the elephants to the monkeys, are unbelievably lifelike. They feel like they actually share the screen with Mowgli, their bodies moving with an sense of weight. It’s miraculous that the animals never look silly when they talk, and little quirks or species-specific flairs added to their speech ground the film’s setting in reality.
Unsurprisingly, Baloo (Bill Murray), the mellow bear who teaches Mowgli about the finer things in life, steals the show. Adorable and lovable from start to finish, Baloo gives “The Jungle Book” more emotional dimension than any other character, and while he’s certainly capable of a selfish streak, he is, in many ways, the film’s closest thing to a moral center. Murray’s gentle performance nicely plays off Sethi’s Mowgli, and Favreau gives them a chance to do their own take on “Bare Necessities.” Theirs is less refined than the jazzy original, but it makes sense that a bear and a kid who has never heard singing before won’t hit the right notes 100 percent of the time.
The rest of the voice actors are similarly striking.
Kingsley is regal and reserved as Bagheera, allowing the panther’s climactic moment of tenderness to shine brightly in the film’s darkest sequence of violence. Lupita Nyong’o is stellar as Mowgli’s wolf mother, Raksha, and Elba is fearsome and menacing as Shere Khan.
Even the strange casting of Christopher Walken as King Louie pays off. Walken’s Louie is more Gigantopithecus, a now-extinct species of giant apes, than orangutan in this go around. When Louie demands that Mowgli give him the secret to fire, Walken’s performance comes across demented and unhinged. The scene is marred, though, by a sudden misjudged use of “I Wanna Be Like You,” which ruins the eerie, unsettling nature of their dialogue exchange. Still, the filmmakers deserve to be commended for working a cowbell joke into Louie’s introduction.
As mentioned earlier, “The Jungle Book” isn’t a straight remake, bringing elements from Rudyard Kipling’s stories into the fold, such as the wolves’ inspiring code of law, and altering the central theme. Mowgli actually finds a village fairly early in the story, and the rest of the picture hinges on whether he decides to join his own species. Whereas the original concluded that Mowgli’s manhood defined his fate, Favreau and writer Justin Marks contend that Mowgli becomes a man by defining his destiny. The new “Jungle Book” offers wisdom, charm and rousing fun for children and adults alike, and unexpectedly leaves its wonderful characters in a better place that fans of the animated classic never knew they needed to see.
“The Jungle Book”
- Running Time: 105 minutes
- Rating: PG
- Score: 4.5/5 stars