The Jungle Book movie review: Remake has just the bare necessities
Disney have given us a less cuddly 'Jungle Book'
You may be asking yourselves if there's a compelling reason for another Jungle Book movie, given the winning and definitive nature of Disney's 1967 animated version, but if so you'd be wasting your time. This new cgi live action mishmash will be followed just two years' hence by another Jungle Book, a Warner Brothers motion-capture production directed by Andy Serkis. That's a whole lot of Kipling, and it should be pointed out that this film is not quite as cuddly or toddler-friendly as the Disney original.
So why make it? To retell a classic tale using recent advances in Cgi, the studio executives might tell us, and cast new light on Rudyard Kipling's Raj legends, but cashing in on a well-known story is surely closer to the mark. It's so well known, in fact, that it must have been hard to dream up a new way of telling it, and at least this Jungle Book has made a genuine effort to do so. In returning to the darker elements of the source material, which after all was originally written for Kipling's sickly daughter who died at the age of just six, director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Marks have created a grimmer and more grown-up adventure in which jazz music and broad humour no longer have a place.
Newcomer Neel Sethi is Mowgli, a child abandoned in the dense jungles of north-eastern India who's raised by a wolf pack and watched over by the kindly panther, Bagheera. He bonds with his adoptive mother and grows up thinking of himself as a wolf, but during a seasonal truce at which predators and prey meet to drink in peace at a traditional watering hole, Mowgli's presence is detected by the jungle bully, a tiger called Shere Khan.
Feared by all species, Shere Khan has a bad temper, a terrible personality and dictatorial tendencies. It's his way or the highway, and when he decides that the man cub's presence can no longer be tolerated in the jungle, Mowgli is forced to go on the run. Bagheera sensibly reasons that Mowgli's best chances of survival entail returning to his own kind at a village bordering the jungle, but the boy can't bear this idea, and runs off alone.
After surviving an encounter with a treacherous python called Kaa (voiced with mellifluous seductiveness by Scarlett Johansson), Mowgli's life is changed forever when he makes the acquaintance of a tuneful and criminally lazy bear.
Bill Murray provides the voice of Baloo, and does a charming job, supported by a strong voice cast including Ben Kingsley (Bagheera), Idris Elba (Shere Kahn), the late Garry Shandling (Ikki, a neurotic porcupine) and Christopher Walken, who plays the giant monkey king, Louie.
The skill with which these anthropomorphised, talking animals are rendered is impressive, and the real boy and the animated creatures are blended with such skill that you stop noticing the joins. The scene in Louie's crumbling palace is particularly well animated, as well as a crucial battle sequence at the end, and the film's sense of adventure is enhanced by pared-back storytelling and great momentum in the direction.
There's a real darkness to Jon Favreau's film that's in marked contrast to previous versions, but there's also, Bill Murray excepted, a fatal lack of charm. The jungle in this movie is scary, full of hidden dangers, and if I was Mowgli I'd be heading for the bright lights and cheering curries of that village. The songs made famous by the 1967 Disney version are too embedded in our collective conscious to be entirely ignored, so Mr Murray gives us a rather half-hearted version of Bare Necessities, while Christopher Walken's I Wanna be Like You has perhaps wisely been shorn of its dubious racist undertones.
- Read Chris Wasser's 4* review: The Jungle Book movie review: 'a thrilling and remarkably sophisticated offering'
It's all very nicely done, but just a little bit joyless, and as I mentioned earlier, excludes younger children from the party by virtue of its intermittent grimness.
- This week's other releases: Movie reviews: Eye in the Sky, The Brand New Testament, Our Little Sister
The Jungle Book (PG, 105mins).