If you’ve seen the original animated Jungle Book then you pretty much know the story: Mowgli, the man cub adopted by the wolves and watched over by the panther Bagheera, pals around with Baloo the bear, has some misadventures, and ends up in a life and death battle with the brutal Shere Khan. This live-action with CG animals adaptation by Jon Favreau is the latest in Disney’s new trend of remaking past animated films with real people. They have had mixed success: Maleficent did add a lot of unseen story to Sleeping Beauty while Cinderella felt like a banal retread of familiar territory. The Jungle Book is somewhere in the middle. While not the first live action attempt at the story (see 1994’s version with Jason Scott Lee as adult Mowgli) it is very entertaining and the effects are done well enough that you don’t have to travel the uncanny valley for an hour and a half.
Neeli Sethi as Mowgli is our singular human presence (save for one flashback) of the entire film so he immediately has a ton of weight to carry. He does a champion’s job though there is the occasional “act-y kid” moment which can be forgiven when you realize he was playing to some simple hand puppets and green screen. The voice work is great and each actor matches their role. Bill Murray is a perfect Baloo and Ben Kingsley sounds just like Bagheera should. I was not a great fan of Christopher Walken as King Louie though. His casting in anything just feels like a stunt at this point. Lupita Nyong’o voice Raksha, the wolf mother of Mowgli and brings a lot of emotion to the role. My favorite of them all was Idris Elba as Shere Khan. Both his vocal performance and the work of the animators created such a terrifying and insidious villain.
The songs are minimized from the 1967 animated picture to this one. The closest we get is Bear Necessities and just a hint of King Louie’s “I Want to Talk Like You” number. Scarlett Johansson voices Kaa the Serpent and just touches on “Trust In Me”. The personalities are all as you remember them and the plot beats pretty much hit the same as the animated original. The one big divergence and my one major hang up is the way this film chooses to conclude. In the original Rudyard Kipling “Mowgli” stories he ends his time in the jungle upon discovering his birth mother and in the animated original he leaves after seeing a girl about his age come to get water for the village. This version decides to forgo Mowgli ever having a real struggle between the jungle and the village. There’s some brief tension but it ends with him playing around with his pals in the jungle.
For me, Disney’s bittersweet endings like The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, The Fox and The Hound, and others were important. These are metaphors for transitioning from the innocence of childhood to learning about the difficulties of life as an adult. Now, maybe they didn’t need to have Mowgli go back to the village but I never felt like the character struggled with it as much the script would have liked me to believe. The village ends up serving as a convenient plot device for the third act but then is forgotten about. Maybe they have plans for sequel to revisit this more, but I went from really loving this film to feeling a little off at its conclusion.