Rated PG (intense action and peril).
There is a rustling in the bushes, then all goes quiet. Suddenly a pack of wolf cubs burst through the undergrowth, shortly followed by a small Indian boy. They seem to be pursued by something. Something large, making lots of noise as it hunts its prey. The cubs and the boy focus intently on running, avoiding the myriad of vines and branches in the way. Their only thought, to get away from their pursuer. Finally we see what hunts them. A panther, lithe and quick, traversing through the jungle with ease.
So begins Disney’s remake of The Jungle Book. What makes this scene amazing is that the only thing real in the whole sequence is Mowgli (Neel Sethi), the little Indian boy. Everything else has been rendered lovingly by the CG wizards at Weta Digital. In fact, even though the movie is set in the jungles of India, the film was shot solely in the sound-stages of down-town LA in front of large green screens.
Not that you would be able to tell from looking at the movie. Not since Avatar has a world been so realistically imagined using CGI, and for once the 3D effects are used to really increase the depth of the movie, truly making it feel like you’re looking through a window into this world. So believable are the visual effects that one of my friends watching the movie with me said “I really want to go to India now”, only to look disappointed when I told him it was all CG.
Yet, incredible visuals can only carry a movie so far, requiring a decent storyline to really satisfy audiences. Coupled with the fact that the film had to also appease multitudes of adults who grew up watching the original Disney animated film, director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Marks had a tough challenge on their hands. But you can forget about your worries and your strife (see what I did there?) because Favreau and Marks have created a film that fleshes out its main characters, giving them each arcs that make them more than just three dimensional versions of their cartoon predecessors.
The story still follows the same premise as the original novel by Rudyard Kipling, mixed in with some of the creative liberties taken by the 1967 cartoon. We see Mowgli raised by his foster wolf parents, Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), and mentored by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), the sage and kindly panther that found Mowgli as a baby. Content to live his life with his adopted family, Mowgli constantly has to suppress his human behaviour. He is often reminded by Bagheera that he must think like a wolf and not like a man. These urges become the least of his worries when Mowgli encounters Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a tiger with a passionate hatred for all men. This encounter leads Mowgli to leave the pack, and set off on his own, meeting characters like Kaa the snake (Scarlett Johansson), Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) and King Louie the orang-utan (Christopher Walken).
All these animals are rendered beautifully, easily making the audience believe in talking jungle creatures. But it’s not only the animation that makes these characters believable. As mentioned before, it’s because each of these roles is fleshed out, letting us understand what motivates each of them to do what they do. It helps that the voices for the main roles of Bagheera, Baloo and Shere Khan are cast perfectly.
Kingsley is great as the wise and patient Bagheera, constantly having to temper Mowgli’s brash abandon. Bill Murray as Baloo is very Bill Murray. Try as you might, you can’t distance the character from the voice, but then again having too much Bill Murray is never a bad thing. Baloo, as you would expect, helps bring a lot of comedy into the film. However the stand out of the movie is Idris Elba. His low rumbling voice is perfectly suited to the role of Shere Khan. There is always a sense of underlying menace whenever Elba speaks, hidden under that sophisticated drawl that he does so well. Whenever Shere Khan is onscreen, there is an intensity that envelops the proceedings, and some of the action might be a little too full on for younger audience members.
While I think all the moving parts in this movie work well together, I do have to point out one misfire. I found Neel Sethi’s acting a bit underwhelming. I appreciate that it is no easy task for someone so young to be acting mostly against green screen, but when the rest of the cast is so great, you can’t help but wish Mowgli was also up to scratch. This is just my personal view, and it may be that most audiences find Sethi endearing.
For a remake that could have gone so horribly wrong, Disney has managed to make a film that gets things so wonderfully right. With an enduring story and an incredibly visualised world, it’s easy to recommend this film.
I give The Jungle Book an 8 out of 10.