Opening this weekend:
The Jungle Book—Disney’s 1967 version of The Jungle Book is probably my favorite of that studio’s animated features. This is partly sentimentality—it’s the first movie to which I can remember being taken, when I was four or five years old. But it’s also looser, lighter, funnier and far richer in personality than a lot of Disney fare, with vibrant primary colors, wonderful voice acting and a couple of catchy big band numbers.
It was hard to imagine that this same charm could be captured in live action. There was a live-action attempt in the 1940s, made by the Korda Brothers and starring Sabu. Heavily narrated, it used live animal footage, but also had a much more human-oriented story.
But Disney’s new version of Kipling’s tales of Mowgli the wolf-raised “Man-Cub,” featuring a live actor as Mowgli and CGI as his animal co-stars, takes a different approach from either earlier version, and finds some unexpected grit and emotional range. Directed by Jon Favreau from a script by Justin Marks, the film uses bits of Kipling’s language and gets across some of his near-peerless storytelling panache. Bits of his icky colonialist presumption inevitably creep in here and there, too, though to my mind this film wasn’t nearly as bad on this score as The Lion King.
As before, young Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is menaced by the scarred tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba), who bears him a grudge. It’s decided that the black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) will return Mowgli to the “Man Village,” and episodic adventures ensue. He’s befriended by the leisure-loving bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and threatened by the python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and the primate King Louis (Christopher Walken), here presented much like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, before he and Shere Khan have their big confrontation.
It’s an odd hybrid, with the Brit actors declaiming high drama alongside Murray’s Chicago-accented shtick, but mostly it works. Lupita Nyong’o, voicing Mowgli’s lupine mother, brought tears to my eyes with her avowals of love for him. It should be noted that there are a few funny but retroactively wistful lines spoken by the late Garry Shandling, as the porcupine.
There are also a few missteps, the most glaring, for me, being the decision to allow Murray and Walken to perform their character’s songs from the 1967 film. Both are great performers in their own right, but musically Murray is no Phil Harris and Walken is no Louis Prima, and they seem to know it—their numbers feel halfhearted, almost sheepish.
Parents of smaller kids—and anyone sensitive to animal suffering—should be aware that the film is violent at times, especially by current kid-movie standards, and that a couple of characters are killed in the course of the story. As the saying goes, it’s a jungle out there.