Who wanted a Disney remake of ‘The Jungle Book’? No one. Especially not one combining CGI with a real-life boy. But forget about your worries – this new version is the jungle VIP. Director Jon Favreau hasn’t monkeyed around, dipping into the 1967 cartoon for gags and fun and Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 novel for darkness, adding awe-and-wonder effects (I gasped as elephants appeared out of the mist in all their trumpeting majesty). Still, it should come with a warning: this is not safe ’n’ cuddly, hug-a-tiger Disney (Twitter is already calling it ‘“The Revenant” for kids’).
Twelve-year-old Neel Sethi (picked from over 2,000 child actors) stars as Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves. Credit to the filmmakers for adding female characters to the all-male line up, with Lupita Nyong’o playing Raksha, the mother wolf who loves Mowgli as fiercely as her own and protects him when tiger Shere Khan stalks back into the jungle with designs on turning him into a man-cub morsel. It’s wise panther Bagheera (voiced to perfection by Ben Kingsley) who decides Mowgli must return to his own kind.
As a villain, Shere Khan is up there with Scar from ‘The Lion King’ and quite possibly baddie of the year. Voiced by Idris Elba (with his east London accent, like Luther gone bad), this predator is all the more dangerous because he’s at the end of his murderous shelf-life: battle scarred, gnarled, a little mangy, and capable of anything.
Halfway through, you’re thinking: the only thing missing here is the songs. Then, in ambles Baloo, the workshy slacker bear with the colossal rump and fondness for honey (voiced by Bill Murray) humming ‘The Bare Necessities’. Next, oobie-do, along comes the king of the swingers himself, giant ape Louie – Christopher Walken drawling like a Brooklyn mob boss as he shakes down this kid Mowgli.
‘The Jungle Book’ is not perfect. The story drifts a bit and the message is a little fuzzy. Is it about human destruction of the environment? Actually, it’s most moving dealing with the end of childhood. ‘They’ll ruin him,’ says Baloo sadly as he escorts Mowgli to the man-village. ‘They’ll make a man out of him.’ Still this ‘Jungle Book’ has the bare necessities, and then some.