Up until a couple of days ago I had no intention of seeing Jon Favreau’s live action/computer-animated remake of The Jungle Book at all. I’d cynically dismissed it as yet another of those pointless retreads designed to line Disney’s coffers and, having seen the trailer a few weeks back, I’d decided there’s no way it could possibly reach the same heights as Wolfgang Reitherman’s original, which to this day remains one of my favourite animated films. Across-the-board positive reviews changed my mind, and on balance I’m glad I went to see it, even though I’m not quite ready to relinquish those opinions. The likeable and energetic child actor Neel Sethi stars as Mowgli, a man-cub raised in the jungle by wolves, and he’s joined by an all-star cast of voice actors, including Bill Murray (Baloo the bear), Idris Elba (Shere Khan the tiger), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa the snake), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera the panther), Christopher Walken (King Louie the orang-utan) and Lupita Nyong’o (Raksha the wolf). As ensembles go that’s pretty impressive, and most of them seem to have had fun in their roles, with Elba offering threatening menace, Johansson purring away seductively and Murray doing the laconic Murray thing. Best of all is Walken, who Favreau introduces with a joke that references Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now before the actor enters a short mobster-inflected ramble that eventually leads to an updated version of the famous Sherman Brothers song I Wan’na Be Like You, once memorably performed by Louis Prima.
As is the fashion these days Favreau’s version is noticably darker than the original – Shere Khan isn’t merely allowed to run off into the distance with a flaming torch attached to his tail this time round – but there’s still plenty of humour and the youngest kids in my screening didn’t seem to be spooked by anything (except one small boy sitting behind me who declared to all and sundry that he didn’t like snakes). Sethi makes a convincing Mowgli and, like Suraj Sharma in the similarly green-screened Life Of Pi, his interaction with the animals is believable; it can’t have been an easy job, even if Favreau employed stand-ins. When he’s not interacting with his animal friends and foes, watching Mowgli leap from branch to branch and swing around on vines is certainly fun, and this is absolutely the kind of film that adults and children can enjoy equally, with exciting action sequences here and chucklesome jokes there, usually involving the jungle’s smaller inhabitants. The biggest shame, though, is the way that this iteration of The Jungle Book doesn’t really capitalise on the wonderful music that was written for Reitherman’s original. Bill Murray deadpans his way through The Bare Necessities, while Walken’s tune only runs for a couple of verses and choruses (though there is an extended version during the end credits), leaving you longing for the upbeat, extended songs of 1967. Perhaps Favreau wanted a little distance between his film and the animated classic, but here those iconic numbers feel like an afterthought, when they should really be the standout moments.
Directed by: Jon Favreau.
Written by: Justin Marks. Based on The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling.
Starring: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito.
Cinematography: Bill Pope.
Editing: Mark Livolsi.
Music: John Debney, Various.
Running Time: 105 minutes.