FILM REVIEW – THE JUNGLE BOOK. With Neel Sethi, and the voices of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson. Written by Justin Marks. Directed by Jon Favreau. Rated PG for some sequences of scary action and peril. 105 minutes.
Disney’s new series of live-action films based on their animatied classics, starting with last year’s “Cinderella,” is turning out better than expected. Where one might have assumed this was just a crass way of finding additional means to squeeze money out of past projects, the across-the-board success of the new version of THE JUNGLE BOOK is a reminder that it’s possible to be too cynical.
Directed by Jon Favreau (whose films include “Iron Man,” “Elf,” and “Chef”), this adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling book – by way of the 1967 animated Disney film – tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), the “man-cub” who has been raised by wolves in the jungles of India. The conceit of the story is that the animals and Mowgli can talk to one another, and so the claim of “live action” is a bit of a cheat. The animals are a mix of models and CGI effects, but everything is blended so seamlessly that your children – and you – will believe.
Mowgli has been adopted into the wolf pack by Akeela and Raksha (voices of Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o), and is additionally watched over by the benevolent panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). However the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) was scarred by Mowgli’s father (before killing him) and now wants to claim Mowgli’s life as well.
This puts Mowgli on the run where he encounters additional characters including the seductive snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), King Louis (Christopher Walken) who wants Mowgli to give up the secret of fire to all apedom, and – most memorably – Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), who looks out for himself but comes to take a shine to the man-cub. For those who are wondering, the songs of the Disney cartoon do survive in this version although even with Mowgli and Baloo singing the Oscar-nominated song “The Bare Necessities,” one would be hard-pressed to call this a musical.
Favreau turns out to be the ideal director for this material as he’s used to dealing with special effects movies like the “Iron Man” series, while presenting the characters as something more that just tricks for the camera. Watch, for example, how the irresponsible Baloo and the focused Bagheera join forces to protect Mowgli. Credit must also be given to Neel Sethi who, not yet 13, gives a credible performance playing against characters whom he couldn’t see when he was shooting his scenes.
There are moments that may be a bit intense for very young or sensitive children, and parents may want to talk to their kids beforehand about how what they’re seeing isn’t “real.” For everyone else, this is is an imaginative and entertaining retelling of characters first presented by Rudyard Kipling in 1894. More than a century later, “The Jungle Book” can still engage us.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.