Director | Jon Favreau
Producer | Jon Favreau, Brigham Taylor
Writer | Justin Marks
Cast | Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Neel Sethi
Run Time | 105 mins
Certificate | PG
So here we go… another CGI/live-action blend, retelling one of Disney’s classic films. The Jungle Book is the latest to return to the big screen in a brand new version, following in the steps of Maleficent and Alice In Wonderland. There’s been mixed results so far – Maleficent was enjoyable enough, whilst Alice In Wonderland was about as much fun as you’d expect two hours of Tim Burton fawning over Johnny Depp to be.
I will admit – I was sceptical about this one, even more so than I usually am about every film, book, human being and upholstery fitting that crosses my path. The Jungle Book was one of my favourite films as a child, particularly as Rudyard Kipling was the most famous resident of my home village. And I wasn’t sure what the new film could bring, beyond a graphical update.
But seeing as that appears to be the main reason to watch the film, let’s start there. Yes, the film looks stunning. Obviously visuals on their own aren’t enough – Alice In Wonderland was similarly visually impressive but still a large pile of what Baloo would leave in the woods – but it is a great start, and the visuals do lend themselves to the story. Scenes with Baloo are light and breezy. Scenes with Kaa are tight and claustrophobic. But it’s the scenes with King Louie that are the visual high point – the apes have set themselves in a ruined temple, symbolic of their ascent – trapped within the shadows of ancient man who have the one thing the apes still desire (as referenced in the song “I wanna be like you ooh ooh”). Louie’s first appearance is especially impressive – his gradual emergence from the shadows to dominate the environment and builds the tension nicely.
So yes, visually the film earns a tick (in fact, make it a tick plus plus. I’m feeling generous). But what about the story? This was the part I dreaded – after playing loose with the stories of Cinderella and Alice In Wonderland, I was worried about what Disney were going to do this time out. But thankfully, they’ve kept things simple and faithful to the source material (or at least the small part of the source material used for the films – yes I know my Kipling). An infant boy is lost in the woods, found by a panther and is immediately eaten. Sorry – typo. Bagheera the panther takes pity on the boy and takes him to a wolf pack where he is immediately eaten. Sorry – another typo. The boy is raised with the wolves as one of the pack for the next few years until evil tiger Shere Khan learns of the boy and immediately eats him. Sorry – yet another typo – he threatens to eat him. The boy must leave his sanctuary of the wolfpack and take his place in human society, becoming a man as he does so in order to take part in various non-wolf like activities such as filing tax returns and not finding chunks of rotting meat in your teeth.
Ok, so I’m being flippant. But it’s only because you’ll already know the story and I’m pretending to respect you too much to rehash it. The story is kept simple and tight enough to allow the film to essentially be a whistlestop tour through the jungle, spending time with the animals found within. And it works. The film is well-paced, none of the scenes drag on for too long and the characters are given time to develop naturally, often thanks to the voice cast.
The casting of the film was one of the great selling points, with a number of great performances. Ben Kingsley lends gravitas to Bagheera, Scarlet Johannsen a sultry menace to Kaa. Newcomer Neel Sethi does a great job as Mowgli in the challenging role against green-screen, whilst whoever’s idea it was to cast Bill Murray as Baloo deserves a medal. And as for Idris Elba as Shere Khan… well, whisper it but he’s the weak link in the film…
Time to clarify that last point, as it might partly be my fault. I grew up knowing Shere Khan as having an aristocratic English accent; the go-to accent for cartoon villains at the time. And Elba’s East London accent isn’t the same thing, and was something that I couldn’t get past. It worked when the tiger was exploding in rage, but didn’t work out for the ‘calm before the storm’ moments that made up most of his screen time to cause one of the two problems with the film.
The other issue comes from Christopher Walken’s King Louie. And again – clarification is required. Walken is superb in the role. But cast your eyes up five paragraphs and you’ll see me talking about the tension building in this scene… tension that immediately diminishes when he starts singing “I wanna be like you”. And in what should have been an exciting and atmospheric sequence, the tension levels never quite build up again.
Still, these are minor gripes. The film is well worth the watch and a worthy successor to the original. Whilst the film may not break new ground in terms of the narrative structure of a well-told tale, there are times that there’s no need to mess with the original…