Welcome to the jungle!
Remember those all-singing all-dancing monkeys, bears, and elephants from The Jungle Book (1967) that you look back on with such fondness from your childhood? Well be prepared to say goodbye to them all, because Idris Elba’s Shere Khan is going to go right ahead and kill each and every one of them. He is one bad cat. A scary, scary fellow indeed. Essentially he’s nightmare fuel for young children. The jungle is his, and he’s not particularly keen on sharing it. Especially not with the man-cub, Mowgli (Neel Sethi). Yes, he wants nothing more than to stamp out the supposed threat that the poor boy brings, and he won’t let a little thing like mass murder get in his way, that’s for sure. Shere Khan is undoubtedly The Jungle Book’s most impressive creation, and Elba ensures that he’s a hugely imposing presence, yet he’s also the biggest clue that this is a very different take on the Rudyard Kipling book than Disney’s 1967 original. We still get a bit of song and dance, just not before a bit of darkness, death and tragedy.
For all intents and purposes, although being billed as a live-action remake/retelling of the timeless story, it’s still basically fully animated from top to bottom, with every inch of the jungle and its inhabitants meticulously brought to life – all barring the hero of the tale Mowgli, newcomer Neel Sethi. His performance is largely strong, if at times uneven. He’s the film’s centre, but not its standout piece. Still, considering he had the task of acting alongside nothing and nobody, he’s done a commendable job. 90% of the time The Jungle Book is visually outstanding. The jungle itself is absolutely gorgeous, and the vast majority of the animals are wildly remarkable, with just a handful of moments giving away that Mowgli’s world isn’t as real as it might appear to be. It’s a major step forward technologically. Consider Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), with its lifeless, fully computer-generated world, or even that of Avatar (2009). Compare them both to The Jungle Book, and it’s plain to see how far visual effects have come in recent years.
Yet there’s something slightly disconcerting about seeing a near-photorealistic mafia boss orangutan having a sing-song. Because as dark as it gets at times, there are still smatterings of the themes and songs from the 1967 classic. It’s a fine line to walk, and not an easy one. Clearly director Jon Favreau wanted to create a world with a sense of realism, but it’s also a place where certain species of animals talk and sing. Mowgli’s buddy, Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) gets his song, and it fits quite comfortably and naturally into the story. But King Louie (Christopher Walken) – a rather creepy mobster take on a traditionally whimsical character – bursting into song felt a bit shoehorned in, almost as though Favreau was reluctant to commit to an all out musical number. I can’t help but wish that he’d either committed to the film’s traditional roots, or forged ahead with his own new vision. Instead at times it feels neither here nor there.
So is it as good as its elder sibling of the same name? Probably not. It’s a different animal in many ways, but a welcome addition to the pack nonetheless.
Rating (out of 5):