It’s coming up to 50 years since the House of Mouse’s classic animation from Rudyard Kipling’s books. From the start onwards this movie is stunning, captivating and enjoyable for all, an unexpected treat when it comes to remakes.
Left in the jungle, man cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) was taken in by panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) who passed him to a pack of wolves who then raised him as their own. Years later at an infrequent truce, tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) vows to break the pact to hunt and kill Mowgli, so Bagheera and later arrival of friendly bear Baloo (Bill Murray) try to help the boy reach a human camp to be safe.
Jon Favreau manages to take the source material of Kipling’s works and the 1967 original and put his own spin on the action. The jungle is presented in a lush yet openly treacherous place which never really came across in the animation. Here, we feel on edge as Mowgli tries traversing the trees and all forms of life that come into his path. It’s a fun yet admittedly dark take on the story that Favreau makes successful, he brings threat, enjoyment and power to proceedings in the tale of one boy and his love for the wild.
It’s a movie that looks absolutely incredible, the landscape of the jungle and outer lands are detailed to perfection, every creature from elephants to little birds is created so well that you’d swear that only real life performer Sethi is actually interacting with the animals. For a blue moon occasion I can say that the CGI effects aren’t distracting and totally enhance the film, every image is beautiful and you get swept up as if swinging through the jungle too.
Justin Marks writes a dramatic screenplay that utilises on most of what we know but with some changes that keep things suspenseful and surprising. For a PG certificate, both the visuals and narrative of this movie are darker than you’d think and thankfully so because it speaks the truth of what a dangerous land the jungle is. Shere Khan gets written more screen time and is deliciously evil and the wolves also have more to do in a bigger idea of what makes a man and who Mowgli is. As if reading a book itself, this film’s story leafs effortlessly through the pages, hypnotizing you like Kaa from beginning to end.
Of course one of the challenges with this movie was going to be tackling the well loved songs, or at least two tracks from the 60’s animation that are memorable and both are done in a great way feeding on a trip down memory lane whilst still being different enough to slot nicely into this re-imagining. They are both slightly spoken/sung but with a jazzy feel and upbeat vibe they do wonders and don’t feel out of place. John Debney’s score itself is almost exhilarating, the percussion and energetic opening of Mowgli running hooks you in and further music provides the necessary thrills and spills on this journey.
Nothing is ever annoying in this film, which I feared when seeing the first trailer. Where past re-tellings have had buffoonish humour or things for kids to laugh at, this provides lighter moments but never in a way to feel pandering for the younger ones watching. The closest to annoyance are some mice that repeat words like the ‘Finding Nemo’ gulls but even that is kept low and works for their characteristic. In fact Baloo is genuinely funny, a porcupine is comedic and the rule of three in comedy works well as creatures come to comment on Baloo using Mowgli to obtain honey.
Honestly, the only slight negative I can think of is that in some cases the vocal work sounds as if from a studio and not manipulated enough to blend in with the jungle but that’s it, truly, two sentences sums up the weaker side of this film.
Bill Murray almost steals the spotlight of the film, providing a great cuddly lazy quality to his turn as loyal and chilled out Baloo, he sings the classic tune with gusto and makes you fall in love with a bear, move over Paddington. Idris Elba is the only vocal talent that stops Murray running away with the honey pot, his roars of delivery are booming and believable and he makes Shere Khan more threatening than he’s been before, both with his voice and the crazily great detail of the tiger, this is a Disney villain that will dazzle for ages. Ben Kingsley sounds wise and yet grumpy as Bagheera should and he works well as the teacher of the piece. Lupita Nyong’o brings a delicate and caring softness voicing mama wolf Raksha, it’s a shame that Nyong’o isn’t physically in more, after mo-cap ‘Star Wars’ and this she deserves to showcase her raw ’12 Years a Slave’ talent again. Scarlett Johansson is entrancing as the sleep inducing squeeze of Kaa, her role bringing a calmer threat to things and also adding a well narrated back-story for Mowgli. Christopher Walken makes King Louie a looming gangster ape, his obsession with man’s red flower becomes a worrying trend and Walken voices the massive character with flair and gets a cowbell reference too. Neel Sethi plays off non-existent mammals extremely well and looks very much like Mowgli plus he’s got the inquisitive side of a child down to an art.
It’s so rare to have a remake that outclasses the original and honestly I think this movie may have done it. It’s a step up for the live action side of Disney and lands with great spirit, excitement and an undeniable run of effects breaking that ground once more. A film with the bare necessities and then some.