The first question I asked when I went into a screening of Disney’s live-action remake of The Jungle Book was: Is this a musical? The answer: No.
Fine by me.
My second question was: Will “The Bare Necessities” be in it? Yes.
OK, good, I was ready to go.
Though the original was not one of my favorite Disney movies, this new version is both more fun and darker, which I welcomed. For those unfamiliar with the 1967 version and Rudyard Kipling’s stories, Jungle Book is about a little boy named Mowgli who’s orphaned and raised in the jungle by a family of wolves, and mentored by a panther named Bagheera.
Shere Khan, a tiger, wants to kill Mowgli before the boy can grow into a man who can hunt and kill animals. To escape the wrath of Khan, Mowgli must travel through the jungle to man’s village and rejoin his people. Along the way he meets several characters, both friend and foe.
In the friend camp is Baloo the bear, voiced by Bill Murray. Up until Baloo’s appearance (later here than in the animated version), the film is poignant (Mowgli saying goodbye to his wolf mom, Raksha) and intense, with a death and a stampede scene that recalls the one from The Lion King. Just as I was thinking, “Ohmygosh, Disney films are disturbing!” Baloo shows up, throwing out a quip a minute.
Initially I found this change in tone jarring, but then I realized director Jon Favreau probably knew what the audience would be thinking by that point and delivered the comic relief exactly when it’s needed. Murray’s performance quickly grew on me, and by the time he’s singing “Bare Necessities” with Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, Baloo was my best friend, too.
The other animals are also well voiced. In Zootopia, Idris Elba showed he could be disagreeable as Captain Bogo. Here, he kicks it up a notch as Shere Khan, and his low, resonant tones are as smooth as they’re menacing.
Another actor from a previous Disney hit is Lupita Nyong’o. Though she never appears on screen in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, her voice performance makes Maz Kanata a standout. Her voice work here as Raksha, Mowli’s adoptive mother, is also noteworthy.
Kaa the snake is female in this version, seductively voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who also sings the hypnotic “Trust in Me” over the end credits. Sir Ben Kingsley infuses Bagheera with the appropriate authority, and Christopher Walken has King Louie talking like someone from the Bronx. It was so odd I laughed throughout his scene, and I’m still not sure whether or not I was meant to.
Sethi, who apparently won the role of Mowgli over thousands of other kids, is making his film debut here. He has the confidence to carry the movie, but at times he comes off more contemporary than primitive. Some lines are laced with sarcasm and sass, which made me think, “Where did Mowgli learn that?” Not from the animals who raised him. It’s as if the jungle boy has been influenced by tweens at the mall.
One of the best things about the movie is Bill Pope’s sumptuous cinematography, which immersed me in Mowgli’s world, a place with equal parts wonder and danger. CGI often takes me out of a scene, but here it’s used so well that when the end credits rolled, I was startled to see where this movie was filmed.
So, have I given you a clue? I’ll tell you something true: Forget about your worries and let the pleasures of this movie come to you.
Nerd verdict: Delightful Jungle