If you are familiar with the Rudyard Kipling source material upon which The Jungle Book is based, then you're likely also aware that Disney's 1967 version of the story softened the story's edges and created an immensely entertaining film with its jazz-infused original music. In this Jon Favreau-directed remake, the edges of the story aren't quite as softened and Favreau has included a couple of the original film's most familiar tunes. While I'm sure it will be a popular decision, the interweaving of the familiar music amidst a tonally different film feels a tad clunky and, as such, maybe even a tad unnecessary even if one can't help but sing along when they show up in the film.
With the exception of central character Mowgli (played by Indian-American Neel Sethi), The Jungle Book remains an animated tale about a young boy, a man-cub as he is referred to by the wild beasts that surround him, and the jungle in which he has been guarded over by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and a pack of wolves, primarily a mother (Lupita Nyong'o), after being abandoned as a wee tike. As a growing boy, Mowgli has largely been left alone amidst a jungle that can often be brutal and unforgiving. As he is reaching that stage the animals all consider to be that of a man-cub, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a widely feared tiger, is intent on forcing Mowgli's return to the man village. Mowgli, attempting to protect the wolves who have raised him, decides to leave the pack protected by Bagheera. On his journey, he will encounter the brutal laws of the land in the form of a simian ape named King Louie (voiced to perfection by Christopher Walken) and a particularly seductive snake, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson). Alternately, he will gain new friends, such as Baloo, a bear voiced by Bill Murray in one of the film's highlight vocal performances.
If you are contemplating rushing out to the theater this weekend to share this updated treasured memory of yours with your young children, you should be aware that The Jungle Book is unquestionably a more intense, at times even jarring motion picture than was the 1967 version. Scarlett Johansson's hypnotic performance as Kaa fits the character perfectly, a larger than life snake obviously capable of squeezing the life out of anyone foolish enough to come close, but the way Favreau allows that seductiveness to linger may prove frightening for smaller children.
The Jungle Book has some rather frightening imagery and Idris Elba's vocal work as Shere Khan is intense, unnerving and one can easily feel his hatred for mankind and this man-cub. Where The Jungle Book falls short is simply in that Favreau never really gives us a feeling to counter that intensity. Newcomer Neel Sethi captures the look and physicality of Mowgli, but he lacks the emotional range that would have allowed me to feel something for his character. In the absence of something resembling emotional resonance from Mowgli, we're left with a visually stunning film that never really achieves that extra spark that would have turned the film into another Disney classic. It's a good film, but not a great film.
Bill Murray's vocal work as Baloo is impressive, though one never really forgets that it's Bill Murray. The same is largely true for Christopher Walken's Uncle Louie, whose version of "I Wanna be Like You" is a curious delight even if we never, ever forget that we're listening to Christopher Walken. Scarlett Johansson's brief vocal work is disturbingly memorable, while both Ben Kingsley and Idris Elba are stellar. Lupita Nyong'o's maternal presence as the wolf who largely raised Mowgli gives the film much of its emotional depth.
There are several scenes, perhaps better described as concepts, that will likely resonate for those familiar with Kipling's work. For example, during times of drought there's what is observed as a water truce - a gathering place where all species are allowed to sustain themselves without fear of attack. It is a true that is observed, it would seem, by even those predators most prone to attacking including Shere Khan. There are other ideas, as well, though some are rather under-developed.
Above all else, The Jungle Book is a beautiful film featuring imagery that one could easily describe as lifelike and remarkable in its detail, coloring, shades and physicality. While the story itself could have used a little more developing, for the experience of watching it alone The Jungle Book is worth watching even in 3-D.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic