The Jungle Book review: a dark return to childhood wonder
Growing up, no matter which part of the world, Disney played a big role in our lives. Films like Lion King, Fantasia, Aladdin, Pinocchio and The Jungle Book fuelled our imaginations and created great memories with their animation and songs.
Thankfully, with this new adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, it doesn't matter how many versions you've seen before. It's definitely a lot darker than you expect, but it still tugs at your heartstrings and creates a fantastic sense of wonder.
And that translates into big-screen magic. What adds to it is director Jon Favreau's top notch CGI generated animals and imagery. It's proof that we are now firmly embedded in a new age of tech-based filmmaking, considering it was all shot in downtown Los Angeles.
Especially for a film that was shot using just one boy running around with a green screen behind him.
More than the bare necessities
12-year-old Neel Sethi stars as Mowgli, the young orphan boy who's discovered abandoned in the jungle by black panther Bagheera (voiced by a stern Ben Kingsley) and given into the care of a wolf pack where he's raised by two wolves, Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o) and Akela (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito).
Bagheera gets annoyed whenever Mowgli attempts to use his human "tricks", like tying ropes and creating containers. Bagheera reasoning is that man's inventions do not belong in the jungle.
But at one point later in the film, when Mowgli breaks the rules and rescues a baby elephant using said ropes, that message becomes a little more complicated and takes on moral nuances.
Anyway, so far, Mowgli is seen as a strange presence amongst the other animals in the community; the 'man cub' is largely accepted. But that lasts only until the scarred and menacing tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who lost his left eye to an encounter with mankind's "red flower" (fire), sniffs him out and threatens his wolf family.
It's enough to convince Mowgli and Bagheera that the boy should rejoin human civilisation. But on their way, Shere Khan attack them, and Mowgli is forced to flee into the deep jungle alone.
It's here that the familiar plot beats from Disney's 1967 film kick in, and Mowgli joins forces with the affable bear, Baloo (Bill Murray). It's fantastic and insightful how Favreau clearly understood that the Mowgli-Baloo relationship is the real key to the story - the element that brings out the true heart of the story.
At one point, when he asks Mowgli to sing and the boy begins to recite the Law of the Jungle - "for the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack", Baloo declares that "that's not a song, that's propaganda". That scene is a perfect masterclass in how you can take an old plot and infuse it with fresh jokes.
At an early point, Baloo even hums the iconic 'The BareNecessities' and sings a few lines under his breath. And then no more is made of it. It's a small but great touch because it beautifully links the original source material and this new incarnation - connecting them spiritually.
Later Baloo actually sings it, right before Mowgli is hauled in to meet King Louie, the colossal orangutuan-like ape. Louie cuts an imposing presence and is introduced sitting in the darkness of a huge cave, shrouded in shadows. Christopher Walken provides his wise guy-sounding voice, and its a vocal performance to remember. In fact, I'm sure he was partly responsible for what happened next:
Louie is desperate to obtain the power of the "red flower" and use it to rule the jungle. So desperate, he starts singing 'I Wanna Be Like You'. This bit of nostalgia with a rapping Walken seems like a calculated move by Favreau, one that definitely pays off.
Tackling his first feature-film role as the only flesh-and-blood character on screen, Sethi manages to capture Mowgli's gait from the 1967 film perfectly - as if he has been living in the jungle all his life.
Voice work is excellent all around, from Nyong'o's maternal warmth to Elba's menacing majesty. Bill Murray's voice seemed tailormade for Baloo.
Composer John Debney offers a lush score, and the 3D work is impressive enough to justify the ticket price.
The Jungle Book is a film that has something for everyone. It truly feels like a home coming of sorts, driving you right back into the charms of childhood wonder.