Disney classics have been transitioning to live-action pictures of late with Snow White, Robin Hood and Cinderella having already received the cinematic treatment and Beauty & the Beast and Tarzan in the pipeline. Based on Rudyard Kipling’s works of the same name, the multi-talented actor and director Jon Favreau steps up to the plate to direct The Jungle Book, the latest adaptation of the beloved story. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is an orphaned man cub, raised by wolves after wise black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) finds him alone in the jungle. When all of the animals gather to drink during a water truce in the dry season, wicked tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) learns of Mowgli’s place in the community. Out for revenge against man following an attack years earlier, Khan wishes death upon Mowgli after the drought has passed. To protect his adoptive family, Mowgli flees the wolf pack and soon meets roguish, but fun-loving bear Baloo (Bill Murray) who takes him under his wing.
Staying true to the original narrative, this retelling is full of fun and nostalgia and although the 3D and special effects didn’t impress me quite as much as Ang Lee’s Life of Pi did a few years ago, it is undoubtedly a visual treat. Moments of menace are genuinely frightening as Mowgli’s safety is threatened by Shere Khan and the equally scary King Louie, ruler of the monkeys. The infrequent darkness is counterbalanced by unadulterated entertainment as a naive and impressionable Mowgli finds his way in the world, interacting with everyone and everything around him. A particular highlight sees him sit back and relax on Baloo’s belly as he backstrokes down the river singing Bare Necessities, an upbeat song that represents his care-free way of life.
Credit to the casting department for finding twelve-year-old Neel Sethi for the part of Mowgli. The youngster gives an emotional performance and does a remarkable job considering he is immersed in a CGI environment. He also has wonderful support from a host of veteran actors voicing his jungle friends and foes including Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley and Christopher Walken. Idris Elba is also note-perfect in his voice work of Shere Khan, the changing of his voice accurately reflecting the character’s villainous unpredictability. The only minor grumble I have is how underused Scarlett Johansson is as seductive serpent Kaa. She provides the rich tones for a suitably hypnotic singular scene that sheds some light on Mowgli’s past, and I would have happily listened to her hiss for at least a couple more.
For admirers of the 1967 animated version and of Kipling’s work, I think there are enough nostalgic nods to avoid any sense of disappointment, and this modernisation will welcome a generation of new fans, young or old, to this important tale of belonging. Justin Marks expertly carves the screenplay from the old text and ties it in nicely with Favreau’s textured directorial vision. The Jungle Book provides fantastic, feel-good fun for all the family, and will help you ‘forget about your worries and your strife’.