The fairly recent trend of making live action adaptations of Disney feature animations continues with The Jungle Book, which certainly draws as much from the 1967 movie as it does from Rudyard Kipling’s original stories. There still doesn’t seem to be a lot of good reasons to be doing all this, with the films prior to this one doing little to enliven the legacies of the originals. But this movie feels a little different. It finds a simple reason for existing in bringing these animal characters to full CG life, and compounds with strong storytelling that doesn’t back away from the darker corners of the narrative.
Orphan Mowgli (Neel Sethi) was found in the jungle as an infant by the black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), and adopted by a pack of wolves. He grows up as a member of the pack, but he can never fully leave his human instincts behind. The young boy suffers the attentions of tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who bears a grudge against men. The tiger threatens the entire pack for harboring Mowgli, and so the boy decides to leave. Bagheera intends to lead him back to the village where men live, but the journey takes Mowgli all over the jungle, encountering all manner of strange creatures along the way.
The film combines several of Kipling’s Mowgli tales, and manages to put them together in a pretty coherent fashion. The writing isn’t able to wring much more thematic weight out of these stories, but it does manage to take the best bits and turn them into a smoothly flowing narrative bursting with humor and imagination. What the movie gets across best in the danger inherent in the jungle. It practically uses horror movie beats as it follows Mowgli through the deepest, darkest bits of wilderness, the most dangerous of beasts becoming full on monsters through the eyes of the hero.
Jon Favreau has real talent for making films for children. 2005’s Zathura: A Space Adventure is criminally underseen. Much of what made that movie great is evident in this film as well. This movie doesn’t talk down to it audience, delivering a tale that can be dark and serious as much as it is light and entertaining. This is a story of a boy coming-of-age through a trial of fire, his wild adventure of living in the jungle running up against the reality of its dangers. The movie never forgets where it is and what it wants to be. It feels assured in tone and style from its opening moments right down to the credits.
Neel Sethi makes for a fine Mowgli, though the boy is really upstaged by the caliber of voices this movie assembles. It should be noted that the CG is top-notch, but a lot of credit must go to the actors for giving life to these characters. The highlights include Idris Elba as Shere Khan, conveying much of the villain’s danger through an oily, feline delivery. There’s Bill Murray as Baloo, playing the bear as a straight up con man. There’s Christopher Walken playing King Louis as a Mafioso of the jungle. Scarlett Johansson lends her smoky pipes to Kaa the snake, suggesting the slithering in every line given. And Ben Kingsley is just perfect as the wise and regal Begheera.
The Jungle Book doesn’t entirely hold together. This is a natural consequence of its construction: it is assembled from different stories, to which it adds even more elements. When all is said and done, it’s kind of difficult to suss out anything truly meaningful in these character’s journeys. But it is a fine adventure with lush, beautiful visuals and a genuine sense of danger. There is so much craft evident in the construction of the adventure that it’s easy enough to forgive for its shortcomings in the end. It’s enough to feel the love for the material and the world in which these characters reside.