You could be forgiven for approaching this latest rendition of The Jungle Book with a sense of trepidation. Jon Favreau’s CGI-drenched reimagining of Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale is just the latest in a long line of Disney remakes. Until now it has been a disappointing list, the likes of Maleficent, Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland failing to inspire the same love as their parent animations.
The Jungle Book, though, may finally be the one to break that mould. As charming and vibrant as the cartoon you remember, but with an extra dose of depth and soul, this lively and engrossing tale may be the first remake that actually improves on the original.
For those who are somehow unfamiliar with the story, here’s the low down. After being found seemingly abandoned in the jungle by Bagheera (Kingsley), man-cub Mowgli (Sethi) is entrusted into the care of a wolf pack who attempt to raise him as their own despite his distinctive lack of wolf-like qualities.
But when vengeful tiger Shere Khan (Elba) returns to threaten the boy’s life, Mowgli is forced to flee his home, embarking on a journey of self discovery that will lead to innumerable encounters with creatures both friend and foe.
One of the most delightful things about this film is its impeccable casting. Bill Murray, with his treasured laid-back persona, is a perfect fit as the cheeky but endearing Baloo, while it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Scarlett Johansson’s rasping vocals bringing to life the equally seductive Kaa. And who better to voice the wise and regal Bagheera than Sir Ben Kingsley and his cut-class intonation?
It’s the same with the film’s more dangerous jungle creatures too. Edris Elba’s raw, East End accent helps to make a fierce and imposing Khan that much more menacing, while Christopher Walken somehow turns King Louie into a hybrid of the Godfather and Gollum as he tries to entice Mowgli into giving him the power of the ‘red flower’ with an offer he can’t refuse.
Unfortunately, the sole human performance is somewhat hit-and-miss. Though Neel Sethi certainly embodies the kindness, courage and resourcefulness of Mowgli, his interactions with the CGI characters are often clunky and awkward – which is perhaps unsurprising given the young actor only has a green screen and styrofoam to play off.
The performers are aided by Favreau’s decision to stick closer to Kipling’s original stories than the animation, which means the anthropomorphised characters can be fleshed out in greater detail. We therefore learn more about the motivation behind Khan’s hatred of humans and get to see much more of Mowgli’s wolf mother, Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), who adds an extra layer of emotional resonance to the story.
And while it’s inevitably darker than the Disney original, depicting the jungle as a far more dangerous and frightening place, Favreau ensures there’s just the right amount of levity too. Fresh renditions of The Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You are fun call-backs to the animated classic – though the latter doesn’t quite fit here – and Baloo’s Huckleberry Finn-esque attempts to dupe Mowgli into stealing honey are an absolute delight.
Most striking of all, though, are the impressive visuals on show. While creating a whole world out of CGI can lead to a disjointed experience, here it works perfectly, the blend of exquisite detail and hyper-real vistas perfectly suiting Kipling’s dream-like creation. From the blindingly vibrant flora and fauna to the richly defined CGI creatures, every inch of every frame is bursting with life.
In short, The Jungle Book is by far the best live action remake yet, its enticing visuals and outstanding performances resulting in an engrossing watch that sets a new standard for others to follow. Take note Beauty and the Beast – this is how it’s done.
Runtime: 105 mins; Genre: Adventure; Released: 15 April 2016
Director: Jon Favreau; Writer: Justin Marks, Rudyard Kipling;
Cast: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Edris Elba, Ben Kingsley
Click here to watch a trailer for The Jungle Book