Disney’s New ‘Jungle Book’ Is Marvelously Fun


I recently saw a wonderful new film designed primarily for families but good enough that any adult can enjoy it: Disney’s The Jungle Book.

Rather than a new look at the old Rudyard Kipling stories, it is a “live action” remake of the 1967 cartoon. I use the quotes because only Mowgli, the human boy raised in the jungle, is live. All the animals are computer-generated, and they look real. The artwork is so brilliant that things appear absolutely real, and the jungle is truly lush. Add to that a really good story, and you have a classic kid’s film.

Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a young boy who had been found as a baby by kindly panther Bagheera (voice of Ben Kingsley; all the performers listed after this are voice parts) and raised by a pack of wolves. His adoptive parents Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) recognize that he is different from their other children, but provide a strong moral code. Everything seems good until tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) picks up the boy’s scent and demands the child. Previously, the tiger had been burned by a torch held by the boy’s father as he had killed the man.

Most of the movie consists of Mowgli’s adventures as he is led out of the jungle by Bagheera, although for a time they are separated. Mowgli deals with a herd of water buffalo and then gets into the coils of the great python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson). Rescued by the bear Baloo (Bill Murray), he is conned into using tools to break open bee’s nests to get honey.

The scenes with these two are a great comedy break, and the two even get to sing “The Bare Necessities,” an Oscar-winning song from the earlier film. There is another set piece where Mowgli is taken by a pack of monkeys to meet giant gorilla King Louie (Christopher Walken), who wants the “red flower,” fire, which he feels will give him more power. And then a crisis.

There are many adult themes hidden in the action: the rule of law (as handed down by wolves), responsibility and the need to belong. But they blend in beautifully. Writer Justin Marks manages skillfully to balance adventure and fun with the darker themes of threats and death. Even Shere Khan has a reason for his anger and grievances, something not often seen in villains in movies made for children.

Director Jon Favreau filmed the whole movie in a studio in California, but you would never know it, the work is so detailed. You feel you are in the jungle and the animals, despite the fact that they are speaking English, seem real. Favreau did a masterful job.

One could argue that the film has nothing to do with reality. The panther would be more likely to eat a baby it found, and so would the wolves. A tiger would not threaten wolf cubs as a way of extorting parents. But the whole notion is fantasy anyway, so the best thing to do is relax and enjoy it.

The acting by Sethi is remarkable considering that most of what he did was with green screens. His sense of joy in his scenes with the bear is wonderful, and he shows appropriate fear and concern all the way through. The voices are perfect. Elba is properly threatening. There is no ranting, just an intense desire to kill the boy.

Johansson manages to be an appropriate predator snake without excessive hissing. Walken is great as the giant ape and sings really well. But Bill Murray steals the show. Baloo seems almost a dead-on impersonation of so many of his characters, and his deadpan humor as the hippy-like bear is marvelous. He even sings well.

It looks like Disney really wants to rule the youth market this year. The studio did the marvelous Zootopia a month or so ago, and now follows up with this film. Disney is making a fortune, and deserves to. Too many films for kids are derivative or just silly. They have created a couple of pieces of real art; very different from each other both in technique and feeling. But they are ideal.

If you have children or grandchildren, take them, although this film is probably too intense for very young children. And even without children, you will enjoy it.