After a brief and successful sojourn from the deep end of Hollywood money pool, Jon Favreau returns with a retelling of Disney’s take on Rudyard Kipling’s THE JUNGLE BOOK, bringing more photorealistic animals and less imperialism/racism.
As a technical achievement, it’s hugely impressive. Essentially using the same approach as Alfonso Cuaron’s GRAVITY, Favreau’s team of animators fashion a richly detailed and never less than wholly believable Indian jungle entirely from 1s and 0s. Similarly, the animal cast are beautifully rendered, voiced to a one by an array of stars who are simultaneously instantly recognisable and magnificent vocal performers: Sir Ben Kingsley as the stoic panther Bagheera, Idris Elba as menacing tiger Shere Khan, Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito as wolf parents Raksha and Akela, Bill Murray as a decidedly Bill Murray-esque slacker bear Baloo, Christopher Walken as the disconcertingly ambitious King Louie (here cleverly avoiding Disney’s original foul up by shifting his character to a power-hungry, Colonel Kurtz-like Gigantopithecus), and Scarlett Johansson as the enormous hypnotic python Kaa.
Which leaves Mowgli - the only human in the story and the only performer filmed as themself - played by Neel Sethi, who is at a double disadvantage; he’s good if not great in the role, and his natural American accent here does him no favours (Bill Murray gets away with it, as he gets away with almost anything; likewise you’re not hearing Walken speak American – you’re hearing Walken speak Walken). Sethi’s other problem is entirely beyond his control: in any given frame, his very physical presence is the odd thing out, and while most of the time the compositing that places him in the 'jungle' is top notch, there are moments (possibly exacerbated by 3D) which while tiny, are enough to snag your eye on and detract from the overall effect.
Disney diehards will be pleased that a couple of songs remain and this version of the story is largely intact (not to mention a few improvements to cultural sensitivities), while Uncle Walt’s haterers will be pacified by Favreau’s tendency to largely steer away from cheap sentimentality. Of course older viewers - even those who never saw the 1967 animated version - will never not know where it's going at any given moment, but it’s nonetheless a worthy update of a familiar favourite; a family film that doesn't completely honey-coat life and death in the animal world – humans included.
THE JUNGLE BOOK is released April 7 in Australia and NZ, and April 15 in the US and UK