Every bit as good as you've heard, the latest incarnation of Rudyard Kipling’s Indian-set adventure story may end up everyone's favourite so far. Blending a live action performance from young newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli with state-of-the-art computer animation, a sensational voice cast, and a more action-adventure driven tone than the 60s cartoon; this is a genuine crowd pleaser and yet another triumph in Disney's march towards global cinematic domination.
But it’s earned. Not only is it the best of the recent live-action fairytale remakes, but it really does push the technological envelope- Avatar style- delivering some of the best CGI work seen to date. This includes photo-realistic animal characters and environments; all entirely generated in LA Centre studios. This reliance on the digital realm seems a risky move in a time when people are beginning to hanker for more practical effects and complaining of CGI fatigue. However the graphics work here is genuinely staggering, and more importantly the technical excellence is matched by deft storytelling and engaging characters to make something genuinely special.
The story is familiar enough, and takes a lot of cues from the much-loved Disney cartoon version. However the breezy levity of the 1967 film, while still very much present, is matched this time by a healthy dose of drama and intensity that makes this as much a thrill ride as it is a playful charmer. Jon Favreau calls on both to achieve a wonderful synergy, and it’s only on rare occasions that the balance doesn’t work.
The voice cast is uniformly fantastic and everyone is bound to have a favourite; whether it’s Sir Ben Kingsley’s stern-yet-compassionate Bagheera; Bill Murray’s loveable lummox Baloo; Scarlett Johansson’s seductive Kaa; Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito’s dignified Wolves Raksha and Akela; or Christopher Walken’s bonkers-yet-sinister Gigantopithecus King Louie. The latter is certainly memorable (not to mention stunningly realistic), but his sequence is one of the few that felt slightly jarring; not just the mildly awkward “I wanna be like you” rendition, but the vibe of the sequence felt uncertain; with Louie being more a Colonel Kurtz type figure than the amiable egotist we remember. I’m not sure what tone Favreau was going for here.
But for all the vocal riches on offer, for me it’s Idris Elba’s sublime Shere Khan who utterly steals the show; prowling through the story with a relentless conviction and pent-up menace that pervades the entire film. Whether he’s verbally sparring with the wolf pack, lashing out at animals, delivering fearsome monologues, or simply perched menacingly on a rock like a spectre of death; he’s the villain of the year so far; menacing, chillingly-charismatic and thrilling to watch in action.
Yet none of them would work without a main character to root for and Neel Sethi is an inspired choice for Mowgli. A child performance with just the right measures of cuteness, resolve, and innocent wonder; and the emotional range to go toe-to-claw with the digitally animated heavyweights; he’s someone to root for as he comes to terms with his identity as a man and his place in the jungle.
And Favreau’s India is indeed a wonderful world to behold. Stunning landscapes, rich jungle environments, ancient temples and droves of magnificent animals that are as beautiful and anything you’d find on Pandora. The scenes where they encounter a herd of immense elephants for example, are treated with Jurassic Park style reverence and awe.
Some things didn’t work so well; the attempt to incorporate the musical elements of the cartoon (in this case just Bear Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You) feel ever-so-slightly half hearted and in the latter case even a bit out of place. They don’t hurt the film at all, but they aren’t essential either. Scarlett Johansson’s sensual version of Trust In me has been relegated to the credits scene (incidentally a wonderful animated sequence worth staying for), where perhaps, all the songs should all reside.
Beyond that, there is almost nothing to find fault over. The story hits the ground running (literally), it’s fast paced yet finds time to breathe, it’s funny without sacrificing pathos, and its spectacular without losing sight of what’s important. The voice acting is fabulous, the story is well balanced, the special effects are flawless and the main character is a star in the making. Add an inspiring score by John Debney, and a liberal sprinkling of Disney charm, and you have all the makings of a modern classic.