Not a complete reinvention of the 1967 Disney classic but Jon Favreau's live action take on Kipling’s stories plays around with how events transpire in this much darker, more action-orientated version that throws up some scenarios that could scare the bejaysus out of the younger viewers.
Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi isn’t too shabby at all) is a man cub raised by wolves (pack alpha Giancarlo Esposito and mate Lupita Nyong’o) in a thirsty jungle whose animals have reached a truce until the rains return. But the fearsome tiger and man-hater Shere Khan (Elba) promises that once they do he will hunt down and kill Mowgli, leaving mentor Bagheera (Kingsley) no choice but to bring the reluctant boy to the nearest village. But the panther loses Mowgli in the dense jungle and the boy must continue alone…
Caution is advised if one plans to bring along the kids as things get quite scary very quickly. Hitting the ground running, literally, with a frantic chase sequence, the POV of whatever is hunting Mowgli down sets pulses racing. Before long Mowgli encounters water buffalo stampedes, mudslides, floods, and Scarlett Johannsson’s eerie Kaa in a spooky scene that almost rivals Lord of the Ring’s Shelob scene for terror; his discovery of giant shedded snake skin as he approaches her lair will certainly give one the heebie-jeebies.
Elba’s Bengal tiger, with his slow, stalking movements and assured vocal delivery, oozes malevolence, and while King Louie – part Walken, part Kurtz, part Kong, part Don – may break into I Wan’na Be Like You he is no cute King of the Swingers with his monkey army someway short of the loveable goofs of the original. The elegant elephants too are far removed from Haithi’s bumbling Dawn Patrol.
Once Mowgli runs into Bill Murray’s lazy Baloo (and, yes, we do get a rendition of Bare Necessities) things settle down and Favreau allows the sweetness and the playfulness of Wolfgang Reitherman’s original to take over. While a pause from the relentless danger is a welcome break for the kids, The Jungle Book loses impetus here with even Khan momentarily giving up his pursuit in the hope that Mowgli will come to seek him out. It can’t find the same depth of friendship between boy and bear either; the love between Mowgli and mother wolf is felt, however. It’s odd too that Favreau, after working so hard to create a living, breathing jungle, opts for a climactic showdown at night, which, along with the visual-dulling 3D, makes things difficult make out.
But the action during the daylight scenes – especially the battle at Louie’s palace – make up for it with the special effects impressive throughout. The theme, which mirrors that of Zootopia, pleads for an understanding of all cultures and for the rejection of prejudice is, sadly, still relevant.
A fun if sometimes creepy adaptation, this Jungle Book is a winner.