A few months back, you would have caught me kicking up a fuss (again) about how movies just aren’t what they used to be, from the perspective of that wide-eyed child we all once were. I was referring to Star Wars at the time as The Force Awakens hit our screens. Here too, the threat of failure because of not living up to the expectation of an experience previously less demanding stands, waiting to bury Disney’s latest live action effort, for no other reason that I’m not the same kid I was, yet being told the same tale. Never mind that this iteration of the now well-loved story is not even a cartoon! Oh the humanity!
The man-cub Mowgli flees the jungle after a threat from the tiger Shere Khan. Guided by Bagheera the panther and the bear Baloo, Mowgli embarks on a journey of self-discovery, though he also meets creatures who don’t have his best interests at heart.
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Neel Sethi
Sounds like I’m taking the mickey out of Disney, but really, I did look at the trailer when it first appeared, not knowing what it was and did precious little ‘ooing’ and ‘aahing’. When I realised what I was watching, my heart sank just a little, as another piece of my childhood appeared to be stamped on, swallowed up and then regurgitated, solely it seemed, for the purpose of nothing more than a lack of imagination and creativity.
In case you’ve actually been living in the jungle for a few decades, this is the story of a young boy called Mowgli (Neel Sethi) and his adventures during his travels from the wolf pack from where he was raised in the jungle, to the man-village. On this trip he is accompanied/protected by Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingley) and Baloo (Bill Murray). All the while, however, Mowgli is being hunted by the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), so getting from point A to B is no easy task. As such, much excitement ensues. If Eli Roth had made it, this might even be classed as survival horror in extremely poor taste.
But thankfully, he didn’t. This collaboration between children’s favourite Disney and Director Jon Favreau has all the marks of the studio emblazoned across it for all to see. A young, determined and focused, though sometimes helpless, individual with a big heart, needs support from his loyal friends to help him achieve what seems impossible. This is not, as we have already established, breaking new ground.
What is different in this altogether darker version of the story is the tone. Favreau and Disney have taken what was a delightful young children’s singalong for a Saturday matinee and have given it a more cloying, murkier feel, with the dangers of death and fear never lurking too far from the screen.
With the introduction of Baloo, the film does lighten a little, as Bill Murray’s portrayal and dead-pan delivery are perfect for the beautifully cgi rendered bear. Elba as Shere Khan is blood-chillingly convincing as the tiger that was once wounded by a man that will now stop at nothing to kill the child that he sees as a threat to his own future and the future of the jungle, should the boy be allowed to survive, and Sethi’s performance as Mowgli is just precocious enough to remind those old enough to remember him, of the captivating vocal performance from Bruce Reitherman back in 1967. Walken may be no Louis Prima, but you can’t have everything. Nonetheless, this has periods where the PG rating feels entirely justified and will certainly scare some children under ten or so, particularly early on.
In short, this may not be The Jungle Book you are expecting, but the lavish vegetation and every animal within it is teeming with life, even if not a stitch of it is real. The translation from animation to live action adventure brings with it its own much more dangerous overtones and most of the innocent purity from long past is gone, even if the well loved songs are still (mostly) in place, which given the overall tone of the piece, might seem a little disjointed to some. Whether these sojourns into levity will resonate with audiences remains to be seen, though the overall critical response has been almost entirely positive.
Entertaining throughout and glorious to watch, there is also no lack of excitement, with plenty of time still reserved to appreciate the admirable performances. Disney have really gone to town on the special effects and whilst this effort may rightly hold its head up as an ode to the original, it is quite far removed from the masterpiece that inspired it.