The Disney animated classic “The Jungle Book” has been given a high tech makeover. The colourful characters are gone, as are most of the songs, but what the new version lacks in nostalgic kitsch it makes up for in eye-popping action adventure that’s part Rudyard Kipling, part “Apocalypse Now.”
A mix-and-match of Kipling’s stories and the 1967 Disney film, the new movie opens with Mowgli (Neel Sethi) racing through the jungle, running, climbing and jumping as a pack of animals chases. Turns out it’s a family outing. You see, Mowgli is a man-cub raised by wolf mother Raksha’s (voice of Lupita Nyong’o) and father Akela (voice of Giancarlo Esposito) who treat him as one of their own. The only animal who doesn’t welcome the young boy is human hating tiger Shere Khan (voice of Idris Elba).
The majestic tiger was once badly injured by a human and firmly believes that men have no place in the jungle. He threatens violence if Mowgli isn’t handed over. “Ask yourselves,” he purrs, “how many lives is a man-cub worth?”
To save his kin Mowgli sets off into the jungle with his mentor Bagheera (voice of Ben Kingsley) at his side and Shere Khan in hot pursuit. Bagheera’s wants deliver the boy to a human village where he’ll be safe, but first they must navigate jungle and its denizens, like the hypnotic python Kaa (voice of Scarlett Johansson), ape King Louie (voice of Christopher Walken) and loyal Baloo (voice of Bill Murray), the brown bear who becomes Mowgli’s friend and ally.
The end of the journey brings Mowgli a resolution to the Shere Khan problem but also a new understanding of his place in the jungle.
Director Jon Favreau uses state-of-the-art technology to bring the story to life but never allows the computer-generated imagery to get in the way of the story. He’s crafted a beautifully cinematic film, with exciting action scenes—and, it should be noted some circle-of-life stuff that young animal lovers might find upsetting—and wonderful animation but the stars of the show are the characters.
Sethi is the only flesh-and-blood on display, all others are artfully arranged photorealistic pixels. Fan favourite Baloo looks as if he just lumbered off the set of “The Revenant,” but is rendered charming and harmless by Bill Murray’s voice work. When he threatens a small animal for stealing his honey with the words, “You have never been a more endangered species,” it’s pure Murray and pure fun.
The stand out character is Shere Khan, the best feline villain since “The Lion King’s” Scar. Muscular and menacing, he’s expertly voiced by Idris Elba, who, like the rest of the cast, avoids doing cartoon voices. It’s naturalism in a natural setting and it works wonderfully.
“The Jungle Book” is a worthy and entertaining remake of a classic that gives us much of what we want—the songs “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” both make appearance—and more.