Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray
Running Time: 105 min
Adapting The Jungle Book when the 1967 Disney animated feature is so beloved was never going to be an easy task. Thankfully, director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Marks have pulled it off almost effortlessly. Where last year’s live-action Cinderella was perfectly serviceable, this new Jungle Book is full of beauty, drama, and heart.
Neel Sethi plays Mowgli, a young boy raised by wolves in the jungle. Mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and father Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) along with the ever-wise Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) have raised him to respect the law of the jungle as a good wolf should. However, it’s painfully obvious that Mowgli is no wolf, and that idea is crushed when the nefarious Shere Khan (a chill-inducing Idris Elba) proclaims that he must see the boy dead.
We all know the story, but placing it in a beautiful and believable CGI world adds immediacy to it all. Favreau previously remarked that it is only now, with the technology as good as it is, that The Jungle Book can be remade. After the first few minutes, I was doubtful that this artificial world of lush greenery and talking animals built around a very real boy could immerse me in the story. But thanks to a stellar cast and gorgeous animation, I was absorbed in Mowgli’s plight minutes later.
Sethi, who has never acted previously, does a decent job in the iconic role of Mowgli, especially considering he was mostly acting with a green screen. That said, the real charm of the film comes from the voice actors, who each play to their strengths. Kingsley is stately and wise as the calm Bagheera and Elba is chilling as the menacing Shere Khan. Scarlett Johansson brings the right mix of sultry hypnosis to the giant snake Kaa and Christopher Walken brings that ever-recognizable voice to the weirdness and silliness that is King Louie. The heart of the film though is Bill Murray as Baloo. The hulking bear not only provides much needed comic relief for the audience, but also goes from using Mowgli to caring deeply about him, a transformation that makes sense as you watch their relationship develop.
With a tight script and good direction, The Jungle Book pushes and pulls at all the right times. Certainly darker and more serious than its 1967 counterpart, it balances truly harrowing action scenes with tender moments and uplifting humor. It’s easy to root for Mowgli as he swings through the trees and sings the classic “Bare Necessities” with Baloo. Pair that with a few nostalgic visual shout-outs to other Disney films (think wildebeests), this feel good adaptation is sure to charm even the most stubborn fans of the original and hopefully captures the attention of a whole new generation of children, ready to be like Mowgli and stay brave and true to themselves.