It’s almost half a century since Disney unleashed its classic animated version of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book on the world. A joyous, upbeat re-telling of a sometimes harsh original story, it was swept along by great characterisations and a handful of genuinely amusing songs. As such, it casts a long shadow over anyone wishing to re-make it.
But director Jon Favreau has done just that, presenting a live-action version of the story – that is to say, a real young flesh-and-blood actor (Neel Sethi) starring as the ‘man-cub’ Mowgli, surrounded by dense wilderness and the same animal characters, who exist thanks to startlingly clever computer-generated imagery. One sees several ways this re-make might have floundered – but, remarkably, it holds up well, offering a fast-moving, thrilling treat that can engage both children and adults.
The first aspect of the new Jungle Book that immediately strikes you is how lush and wondrous it looks. (I saw it in 3-D on an Imax screen). Every tendril, tree and bush in the jungle looks uncannily real – while the detail of the animals is created in breathtakingly realistic fashion, even down to how fur moves in motion, or the way snakes slither.
Its lush visual approach recalls James Cameron’s Avatar, a CGI breakthrough in its time. This new Jungle Book is every bit Avatar’s equal – and it’s a whole lot more fun into the bargain.
Favreau has recruited an excellent cast here. Young Sethi (who is now 12 years old) is a likable, nimble, resourceful little Mowgli. But it’s the animals’ voices that work so well: Bill Murray playing Baloo the honey-loving bear with lazy, distracted phrasing; Ben Kingsley, a perfectly stern Bagheera the Panther; Idris Elba menacing and ferocious as the tiger Shere Khan; and Scarlett Johansson deploying her famously seductive voice as the treacherous serpent Kaa (“Trusssst in me”).
The structure of Kipling’s original narrative remains largely unchanged: Mowgli is nurtured in this animal kingdom and raised by wolves – until Shere Khan learns of his tenure in the jungle. Bagheera eventually tries to escort Mowgli back to safety in the man-village – but not before the very existence of the jungle comes under threat.
The various threats to the boy and to the jungle itself are not taken lightly – and it must be said this film, carrying a PG certificate, may be a little intense for some younger children; its thunderous, insistent music (courtesy of John Debney) certainly underlines the life-or death issues at stake. (My eight-year-old companion took it easily in his stride, though his six-year-old sister was a little scared on a couple of occasions.)
On the lighter side, it was good to hear some of the deathless songs from the animated version once again – The Bare Necessities is simply un-improvable, and while I’d have preferred to hear Louis Prima singing I Wanna Be Like You again, its mere presence here was a plus.
Whether this new version of the Jungle Book will enjoy the long shelf life of its 1967 predecessor remains to be seen – but for now, it’s a strikingly skilful piece of family entertainment, and a creditable addition to Disney’s catalogue.
Read David Gritten's insightful film reviews every month in Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition, or download the digital edition today.