Review: Splendid ‘Jungle Book’ is a remake done right
“The Jungle Book” is not just another cash grab lifted off of Hollywood’s assembly line where everything old becomes new again.
This thoughtful, considered live action remake of Disney’s 1967 animated classic nails the spirit of the original and gives it a fresh update for modern audiences. And it creates a magnificent living, breathing world that fills every inch of the frame with a sense of wonder.
Director Jon Favreau, combining the youthful excitement of “Zathura” with the blockbuster momentum of “Iron Man,” brings heart and soul to this rich adventure tale about a boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) raised as a “man cub” in the jungle.
Bolstered by seamless special effects and a first-rate cast of voice talent, including Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson and Christopher Walken, Favreau brings his world to full, vivid life. This “Jungle” has a pulse.
We first meet Mowgli as he’s dashing through the jungle with Bagheera (Kingsley), a black panther who acts as his father figure. Bagheera brought Mowgli to a pack of wolves when he was a baby, and he was raised by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) as if he was one of their own.
During a gathering at Peace Rock, where all of the jungle’s creatures convene to drink water, Mowgli is sniffed out by Shere Khan (a menacing Idris Elba), a Bengal tiger with no tolerance for humans. He issues an edict to Mowgli’s wolf family to turn the boy over to him, which sends Mowgli out into the jungle on his own.
From there, “The Jungle Book” becomes a series of colorful vignettes, each marked by the appearance of a different signature character. Mowgli first comes across Kaa, an enormous python voiced with slithering seduction by Johansson, who nearly squeezes him to death.
He then makes the acquaintance of Baloo (Murray), a friendly bear who enlists Mowgli to help him score mass amounts of honey and teaches him — in song, of course — about “The Bare Necessities” of life. Murray’s lazy charm is a natural fit for Baloo, who is given Murray’s soft eyes and worn face.
Finally Mowgli meets the great King Louie, a gargantuan orangutan voiced with the unmistakable staccato irregularity of Christopher Walken. In a movie teeming with visual splendor, Louie is the most towering creation of all, and Walken’s offbeat rhythm brings a strange humanity to the huge beast.
“The Jungle Book” keeps up a brisk pace and never lags; there is something new around every corner. Elba’s Shere Khan is genuinely frightening — his presence may be disturbing for younger children — but Favreau (along with screenwriter Justin Marks, working from Rudyard Kipling’s book) does a fine job of toggling between moments of suspense and comic relief while keeping the action quotient high.
If there’s a weakness it’s Sethi, whose presence lacks on screen. He’s believable as a boy in the jungle, but as an actor he struggles to deliver the might needed during the film’s final confrontation. He’s the film’s lone human element, but it’s everything else on screen that makes it feel real.
It’s a minor quibble in a film that will be celebrated, and rightly so, as one of the year’s best family films. It’s the rare remake that gets things right, and Favreau makes this “Book” a genuine page-turner.
‘The Jungle Book’
Rated PG for some sequences of scary action and peril
Running time: 111 minutes