To many, it must have seemed a near sacrilegious act for Disney to make a new animated version of The Jungle Book. After all, the 1967 film is one of the best loved features in the Disney canon. The various live action films and spin-offs since then have been given a lukewarm response. As it turns out, the latest attempt to bring Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli to the screen is a triumph - a painstakingly crafted digital 3D movie whose astonishing visual effects are complemented by very sure-footed storytelling and tremendous voice-work.
Early on, when we see Mowgli (Neel Sethi) prancing through the forest with the black panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) or playing with wolf pups at the Peace Rock, it looks as if the film will indulge in the cutesy, sentimental anthropomorphism that blights so many animated movies. Thankfully, as soon as the vengeful, scarred tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) arrives, the mood changes. The tiger has a bitter grudge against the boy and wants him dead.
The portrayal of the animals is as life-like as in a natural history documentary - we can see every ripple of their muscles.
This is a far darker film than the 1967 cartoon. There’s a hint of jungle gothic about several of the scenes. Mowgli’s journey, against his will, to the ruined temple presided over by the obese orang-utan King Louis (voiced in purring mobster-like tones by Christopher Walken) could be something out of a horror movie. So could the scene when the little boy is mesmerised by the python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) which wraps its coils around him. There’s nothing cosy either about the elemental sequences - the landslides, storms, buffalo stampedes or the fire - “red flower” - in the forest.
Newcomer Sethi gives a remarkable performance in a role that required him, as just about the film’s only live action character, to act in front of a blue screen. (His animals friends were added in afterwards.) He plays Mowgli with a fieriness and gumption which stops the character ever seeming too much like an orphan waif on leave from a Victorian melodrama.
Strangely, the least effective scenes here are those which invoke the memory of the 1967 film. We hears a few strains from The Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You but the songs seem out of place. There’s plenty of comedy here, not least when Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) is in pursuit of honey but there’s also a constant sense of menace.
This wasn't an easy movie to make. Each individual shot reportedly took weeks to animate. Much of the work was done by a small army of technicians at the effects company MPC in London and at Weta in New Zealand, although the director Jon Favreau was based in LA for most of the shoot. They’ve achieved something both groundbreaking and magical.
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