If I had to sum up Jon Favreau’s live action take on The Jungle Book in a single word, it would be… affectionate.
It’s perhaps an unexpected thing to say about a film that is a little darker and quite substantially more intense than the animated version of Kipling’s tale from which it takes its inspiration, but it is exactly in referencing that source that much affection is revealed. In that, and the enormous heart that runs through it which never turns saccharine.
The Jungle Book‘s stellar cast might overwhelm newcomer Neel Sethi in any other circumstances; as they’re safely ensconced in (gorgeously realised) animal characters it is perhaps the youngster’s inexperience that allows him to make such a good showing, unbowed – in that childlike way – by the amounts of green screen acting he must have done. As it is, he stands up brilliantly well to the sheer weight of talent around him. Sir Ben Kingsley’s Bagheera is particularly generous, restrained and warm, letting Sethi’s Mowgli fill the screen – even a screen as intimidating as the IMAX in which we saw it – with big-eyed naivety and youthful belligerence. Lupita Nyong’o brings the heart in spades, and even Bill Murray’s Baloo is a scene-stealer rather than walking away with the whole movie. Christopher Walken’s gargantuan King Louie is thrillingly creepy even when conducting a classic sing-song.
It is perhaps Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa that suffers most from the surfeit of talent; though her role contains a crucial bit of exposition and she’s spared the undignified exit of the cartoon concertina snake, her cameo is brief and abruptly over and her song confined to the end credits – though these are worth sticking around for. I also struggled a little with Idris Elba’s Shere Khan; never bettered when exuding quiet menace, the twisted tiger’s blistering moments of rage seemed at times a bit muted.
Still, this is splitting cat hairs. The fact is that the whole is enchanting. The immersion offered by the IMAX screen was quite something, but even on a 2D screen half the size it would clearly be a really beautiful film. Despite deft references to the animated classic – particularly in the opening and ending, and well-chosen musical links – it’s in the deviations, and the return to Kipling, that this finds its own feet and justifies Disney’s desire to explore its back catalogue in live action. Witty without being jarring or coarse, deeply emotional but not manipulative and a serious visual treat – what a winner.
The five-year-old’s verdict:
Here’s where it went slightly wrong. I actually nearly went to see this without her, as after her nervousness at some elements of Zootropolis, she and I were both uncertain. But we talked it through and thought we’d try being brave. I gave her an opt out, which was to leave with her dad if it was too much. She was actually completely fine through some early scenes of animal violence – and I should emphasise that almost everything is implied rather than seen, so the PG rating certainly holds. But the big screen eventually became too much, and she decided to opt out; while the central core of the film was then fine, the ending was intense even for me, so it’s just as well. My parental recommendation would be for 8+, particularly in 3D, perhaps a little younger in 2D. I recognise I have quite a sensitive soul on board, particularly where animals are concerned, so others of a similar age might be fine. However, I did also hear another child near us express a quavering dislike of Kaa.
The Jungle Book is on general release in the UK from April 15th.
Disclosure: We were given family tickets by the Disney UK team to a screening including some fun events like face-painting; however, all thoughts about the film are our own.