For nearly half a century the 1967 version of The Jungle Book has been one of the jewels in Disney’s crown, creating classic tunes such as The Bare Necessities that are still enjoyed by children today. Now director Jon Favreau, the man who started the Marvel superhero boom with Iron Man, has the formidable task of updating the story in live action, using the latest computer effects and a staggering cast of A-listers. But can he recapture that old magic?
The story joins Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi), a young human (or “man-cub”) found in the jungle by Bagheera the panther (voiced by Ben Kingsley) and raised by wolves. However, when sinister tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) makes it clear he wants to kill Mowgli, the boy reluctantly leaves his home to find his own kind, before running into a charismatic, laid-back bear named Baloo (Bill Murray).
Favreau faces an arduous task, remaking a film that all of us know and love. Make it too similar, and there’s no point in doing it at all; but make it too different and you lose the reason people liked it in the first place. Happily, Favreau toes that line and creates an incredible looking film that brings something new to an old story.
Unfolding as more of an adventure film than the all-singing, all-dancing original, the sense of magic and wonder nevertheless remains. Every animal that our young hero comes across looks extraordinary. It’s at times hard to believe that most of what we are seeing is computer animated. Equally, the world that’s created around them is astounding. From the dim, sinister heart of the jungle where Mowgli runs into Scarlett Johansson’s hypnotic Kaa, to the opulent lair of King Louie (Christopher Walken), the detail is extraordinary and helps evoke the film we all know.
Filled with enthusiasm and fearlessness, Sethi is a great choice as Mowgli. Interacting seamlessly with his environment, it’s an endearing performance that works both in the lighter moments and the action-packed finale. Just as well chosen, if not more so, are the voice cast, who bring their own twist on familiar characters. Kingsley’s softly spoken Bagheera provides the heart of the film alongside Lupita Nyong’o as Mowgli’s adoptive mother, while Bill Murray’s perfectly chosen Baloo adds fun.
A more wisecracking version of the beloved bear, Murray gets the spirit just right without the performance becoming an impression. Elsewhere, Walken is hilarious as King Louie, playing the character as more of a mobster obsessed with “man’s red flower” (fire, which plays a huge part in the finale). Elba is a more ferocious, violent version of Shere Khan than the silky voiced George Sanders, thinking nothing of killing to get what he wants. Indeed, the sight of a “real” tiger jumping towards the camera in 3D might be a little too ferocious for very young viewers.
While it’s certainly a different take on the Rudyard Kipling story than its predecessor (there are only two songs, and, yes, The Bare Necessities is one of them), this is one of those rare moments when a remake can be called a complete success. Only time will tell if this retelling of The Jungle Book is as enduring, but what’s clear from the outset is that Favreau has created a wonderful new world that is both faithful to the spirit of the original and gives it enough of a twist to make this new venture worthwhile. Clearly, Disney were right to “trussssst” in him, and you should, too.
The Jungle Book is in cinemas from Friday 15 April