I’ve only seen the 1967 Disney original once, so could go into this without the need to compare or worry emotionally about my childhood being ruined blah blah blah. All the better for it, because this is a magical piece of story-telling with stunning visuals, wonderful performances and a few moments that made me jump more than any recent horror film I’ve seen.
This is evidently a project that wants to stay faithful to the source material, never straying too far from a simple story we all know. While director Jon Favreau adds and tweaks a few sequences here and there from a narrative point of view and to maintain a sense of “realism”, it’s familiar territory from the off.
On a sense of realism, our CG animals are scarily real. They move and act like wild animals should. Only when they start to talk do we remember that they are fantastical creatures and not something in a wildlife documentary. These magnificent beats are so accurate you’ll be hard to imagine they are all CG creations because they look and move so realistically around the jungle and with young Mowgli. All the animals, big and small, are awesome to behold on the big screen and really put the scope of this in context. While we don’t have dancing elephants or bears wearing coconut bras, as I say the realism of what animals can do is kept here, they are still very entertaining, scary, emotional, powerful and loveable in their own way.
The cast is also brilliant and I couldn’t hear the animals any different to what I was doing. Stand-out roles are Bill Murray as Baloo who gives his best performance in years – nothing quirky or obscure, just warmth and humour and emotion in the way Murray does best when he’s given good material – and Idris Elba as Khan, a tiger so menacing that with his deep, silky voice you never feel comfortable in his presence because you don’t know when he’s going to lash out next. Christopher Walken is too cool as King Louie, and never fails to win me over with his unique dialect and smooth voice.
Scarlett Johansson is very much a fleeting role and serves only a few minutes of screen time but still embodies her python Kaa with that seductive threat she needs thanks to her voice. With Lupita Nyong’o, Ben Kingsley and Giancarlo Esposito also on fine form, the animals here and brought to life more than I expected. Kudo also to newcomer Neel Sethi, a boy acting alongside nothing but green screen animals but still manages to convey the right amount of pathos and fun needed for a boy raised in this fantastical jungle. He is a perfect screen Mowgli and really gives it his all acting-wise to make you invest in him, believe in him and really connect with his relationship with the animals he meets. A great little actor indeed for such an important role.
The pace rockets along fine, and it’s made easier with such beautiful landscapes and CG locations that rival ‘Avatar’ in terms of sheer gorgeousness on screen. The jungle is sprinkled with that lush Disney magic that looks hyper-real in places, but this is fantasy, and so you let your imagination spiral with the raging waterfalls, sky-tall trees, dangerous cliff faces and sun-baked clearings. It really is a gorgeous looking film from the off and brought to life through harsh sun, fierce rain and tropical thunderstorms.
I find it hard to fault this on the whole – it’s a very simple story, but nothing is hard to follow or simply enjoy. Maybe the CG will be too much for some, but because it’s never done in a tacky way, it actually works on the whole and the realism of it bowled me over. Maybe the tone is a little more scary and “real” that can put off young children; as I say there are a couple of scary moments due to Khan (then again, he IS our villain and it never lingers too long)? I’m not sure – I think parents should take their children to see this as they’ve probably seen worse, but with each scary moment the sequence is quickly diffused with action or a scene change and no violence is lingered on to frighten young viewers.
It’s a magical adaptation of the current live-action Disney era, and with a rousing soundtrack and sweeping camera work that takes us below, above and through the jungle as only Disney can, this is a real winner. I can’t think fans of the original will be offended by this remake; it’s a loving remake for a new generation whilst respecting the source. And even two toe-tapping songs feature in moments that work surprisingly well to keep that sense of “realism” – Sethi, Murrary and Walken…in fact the whole cast and crew…do us and Disney proud.