Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, the tale of the man-cub Mowgli raised by wild animals, has seen its fair share of hollywood adaptations over the years, most notably from Disney. Disney first adapted the tale in the animated 1967 film and then later made a live action adaptation (sans talking animals) starring Jason Scott Lee as a much older Mowgli in 1994. Now in 2016, director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) steps in to bring the old classic to a new generation.
And he succeeds in bringing it to life in the most spectacular fashion, with only a couple of missteps along the way.
This new version of Kipling’s classic tale features only one human character on screen for much of its 105 minute run time (there are brief glimpses of others, one mainly in an important flashback), that of Mowgli, played brilliantly by newcomer Neel Sethi. The film makes great use of fantastic CGI for its animal cast, making the talking animals look convincing and believable in a way that doesn’t detract from the film. The movie assembled an impressive line-up to voice those animals with the likes of Bill Murray (Baloo), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera), Lupita Nyong’o (Raksha), Giancarlo Esposito (Akela), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa), Christopher Walken (King Louie), and Idris Elba (Shere Khan).
For the most part the cast does fantastic in their respective roles. Kingsley bears the weight of the movie as Bagheera in also being its narrator, and he does so with gentle authority, imparting kindness and wisdom to Mowgli while being stern when circumstances demand it. Murray’s Baloo brings a light hearted touch to an otherwise more serious film, and his rendition of “The Bare Necessities” with Mowgli comes across as natural and not forced into the movie. This is in contrast to Walken performing “I Wanna Be Like You”, which feels very much out of place in an otherwise solid turn as the orangutan/Gigantopithecus King Louie. Esposito is solid as Akela, and Nyong’o’s Raksha is fierce in her determination to protect Mowgli. Johansson is sort of wasted here, as her scene as Kaa, though important as the snake reveals some backstory, is all to brief. Kaa’s song from the 1967 movie, “Trust in Me”, is relegated to playing over the end credits, though hints of the music can be heard in the film.
But it’s Elba’s Shere Khan that shines the most, providing a terrifying villain with a degree of sophistication, much like Jeremy Irons’ turn as Scar in the animated film The Lion King (which this movie borrows a couple of scenes from liberally). Shere Khan is almost civilized in his savagery, and his first appearance on screen as he saunters down to the watering hole is chilling in its simplicity. We also get a bit more backstory in this version to help us understand why the tiger hates Man so, and the backstory gives us a very direct connection between the tiger and Mowgli. Elba makes the most out of every scene he’s in, be it telling tales to the wolf cubs in the way of a kindly uncle or savagely attacking in the movie’s thrilling climax. His rendition of Shere Khan only adds to this superb Disney villain’s legacy, though he may be a bit too intense for very young children.
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And as superb as all the animal characters are, Sethi’s Mowgli holds his own admirably, especially for a young actor’s debut. He brings to life in perfect fashion the Mowgli we knew from the 1967 animated movie, being inquisitive and rebellious as he makes his own way in the jungle. The film doesn’t touch so much on the man-village as the animated film did, though it is seen, and man’s ability to use the “red flower” (fire) plays an important role. But unlike that earlier version which leaned more to Mowgli being an outsider to the jungle who must go back where he belongs, Favreau’s version shows a different relationship between man and nature, that it just might be possible for the two to coexist. It goes to a more modern sensibility that we can belong to where we choose to fit in, not where it’s dictated that we should do so. Some may take umbrage with the new film’s ending for that reason, though it’s easy to see why this ending was chosen in light of a sequel already being greenlit by Disney.
In all, this new telling of an old classic comes to life in a fantastic way for a new generation. The CGI effects are astounding and realistic, and immerse you more into the film rather than take you out of it. That immersion is helped further by the great performances from its stellar cast, with the only two missteps being Walken’s King Louie bursting into song and the limited screen time we get for Johansson’s Kaa. Other than those missteps, the film is a rousing, entertaining adaptation of the Kipling classic which will both thrill you and touch your heart. It should be noted however that very young children may be frightened by some of the more intense scenes, so parents may want to use caution before taking very little ones to the theater. That said, a lot of violence occurs offscreen, though its effect on the characters isn’t lessened. The Jungle Book remains a classic tale, and this new adaptation is one not to be missed.
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