Mowgli is running through a spectacular, breath-taking jungle at clearly the fastest speed he can muster, but we get the sense that he can’t quite match whatever it is that is making him run in the first place. Goosebumps start to prickle along my arms as I wonder whether he is trying to catch up with one of his animal friends… or already being pursued by Shere Khan? Will he make it?
Another installment in Disney’s live-action remakes of their well-known animated classics we grew up with (does this mean we will have to wait several more years for the Frozen version?), The Jungle Book is stunning, absorbing and thrilling from start to finish. It’s also occasionally jump-in-your-seat scary.
The amount of work concerning the CGI alone in this film blows my mind. And what good work it is. The jungle is an endless expanse of enormous trees, massive amounts of foliage, green dappled with brown, vines, height, sudden roaring waterfalls and ravines. It seems to be the only world in existence, an ever-changing one, as nature does lay claim to it whenever it chooses. A stroll in a field of tall yellow grass with Bagheera may turn in to a hair-raising fight for survival in a second. You might discover the tree you chose to climb is dead when you are already halfway across its branches. And in the same day you might stretch out at the base of another tree, snacking on some dewy red fruit dangling right in front of your eyes. Hearing about the Man Village and catching a glimpse of it is almost a surprise after moving with Mowgli through this jungle universe.
From Bagheera’s fluid movements that always make you wonder just a bit whether he will pounce on Mowgli after all (even if you know he won’t), to Baloo’s heavy, lumbering walk, to King Louie’s frightening speed despite his enormous size, the animal characters in the film successfully blend the purely animalistic with the fictional elements that make them relatable to the human in us (with all their qualities). We understand and appreciate why they behave the way they do towards Mowgli, secretly relieved that some of them didn’t eat him when they first met the little mancub, but we also never quite forget they are jungle animals, some of them predators, and that’s the way it should be.
The film’s thoughtful screenplay and characters successfully extend beyond the excitement of a boy living alone among animals. While Mowgli’s fate and interaction with the jungle and its inhabitants is also a factor that propels our interest, as when we read the book, eternally appealing themes are explored, sometimes touched upon by a short, but well-written and well-acted scene. “You are mine to me, no matter where you go, no matter what they call you,” says Raksha, his adoptive wolf mother, to Mowgli. “I raised him,” Bagheera says to Baloo, acknowledging Mowgli’s special qualities, which the animals around him cannot always understand, but don’t extinguish completely and finally come to accept. Families coming together in different ways, not just through blood ties, friendship, self-discovery, fear and facing life – The Jungle Book has it all, simply well done.
The natural thing about films with animated or CG characters is that you become additionally aware of voices, and The Jungle Book boasts some very distinct ones among its cast. Christopher Walken brings a menace to King Louie that only he can bring, along with the wackiness, especially since not only his voice animates the ape king, but Walken’s eyes look out of the ape’s face (cue Sleepy Hollow memories). Scarlett Johansson’s extra throaty delivery makes Kaa border between alluring and frightening – make sure you stay for the end credits for her rendition of Trust in Me.
Idris Elba voicing Shere Khan is yet another beast (pun!). Shere Khan, the moment he appears, is immediately terrifying. His voice is not just deep, it’s always verging on the edge of a bone-chilling growl and it leaves you in no doubt that the tiger is ready to show his fangs and use them without hesitation. Shere Khan is less about the tiger, the tiger is merely the package in this case, containing a bullying, bloodthirsty, merciless brute who can kill at a moment’s notice and, while more than capable of provoking immediate fear, is ultimately driven by it himself, which feeds his insane desire to eliminate that one thing which constrains his overinflated ego.
I left the main character for last, the one that all the animals, from mother, to enemy, to friends, had so much to say about. Mowgli has thus far fortunately been unscarred by the tragedy in his very early childhood which left him an orphan, and despite his occasional struggles with adapting to life in the wolf pack, he has remained open, curious, emphatic and brave. His resourcefulness and inventive streak make the self-discovery part of his journey through the jungle all the more interesting. He is also very resilient, making the audience breathe out in relief when he doesn’t break his back or loose a limb to Shere Khan.
I’ve left out comparisons to both the book and the animated Disney film on purpose, as this movie, while respectfully nodding to its inspiration and even elegantly incorporating the well-known songs without turning in to a musical, is more than capable of standing on its own. “Trust in me, oh, just in me…”