One of the last end credits to scroll for The Jungle Book is “Filmed in Downtown Los Angeles.” This funny, startling declaration is a full reveal of why this Jon Favreau-directed remake is so remarkable. This live-action re-telling of the Rudyard Kipling story takes place in an entirely CGI environment and, aside from the main character (and a few briefly glimpsed adults), all of its cast members are CGI talking animals.
The story is mostly the way we remember it, as Mowgli (played by newcomer Neel Sethi) is raised by wolves and mentored by a panther named Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley). A sadistic lion named Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) objects to a “man-cub” being raised in the wilderness. Shere Khan wants Mowgli dead and threatens to declare war on all the animals who protect him. Wanting to keep the peace, Mowgli leaves his tribe, immerses himself in the jungle and befriends a jovial bear named Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray).
Sethi’s performance as Mowgli is, unfortunately, a key problem. If you’re going to only have one human in the main cast, sporting a bad hairdo and wearing a red diaper for the entire movie, he’d better be a good actor. Sethi is too inexperienced to carry the film and comes across as all too aware he’s in a Disney movie. He’s a cute kid but far too modern and clearly domesticated, unable to pull off playing a child raised outdoors without human interaction. It’s a good thing his CGI co-stars are far better.
Elba is sensational as Shere Khan, somehow evoking a similar menace to his recent, scary turn in Beasts of No Nation. The late, great Garry Shandling plays an ultra-possessive porcupine and, in his final film, gives a hilarious swan song. Lupita Nyong’o has some fine moments as Mowgli’s mother, Scarlett Johansson is a perfect choice for Kaa the snake, while Murray and Kingsley, no strangers to vocal acting, are solid choices. Only the stunt casting of Christopher Walken as King Louie doesn’t pay off. Walken’s clumsy line readings are too self-consciously weird and his take on “I Wanna Be Like You” doesn’t work. In general, the music numbers are brief and seem out of place, though Johansson’s ’60s-tinged, end credits rendition of “Trust In Me” is hypnotic.
Unlike the cast of Babe, the talking animals here take a while to get used to. Initially, it’s creepy hearing childish giggling come from the mouths of wolf cubs. For all the grand visuals on display, even with Favreau at the helm, this is an impersonal product. Unlike the far riskier Maleficent and the recent, more elegant Cinderella, this latest example of Disney’s live-action rendering of animated classics is entertaining but isn’t fully engaging emotionally. The 1967 animated original and even the under-appreciated, Jason Scott Lee-starring 1994 live action version were far more watchable.
While the new Jungle Book is too scary for the little ones (especially in 3D), older children should love it. The animal battles are exciting, the special effects and photo-realistic animals are spellbinding and, as a feat of visual storytelling, there’s much to offer the eye. Not so much the mind or the heart, especially since this is supposed to be a parable about when boys become men.
Still, unlike Batman v Superman-Dawn of Justice, this is a real event, a spectacle worth seeing on the big screen. When Mowgli takes on Shere Khan during the fiery climax, Favreau taps into the primal excitement of Kipling’s original story. Not bad for a movie shot in downtown Los Angeles.