Rating: 4 / 5
The slushy escape from a mad tiger and a landslide, astride a water buffalo, is worth a Revenant. The slouch atop a branch where a child, a panther and a bear hang out together, into the sunset, is worth a Lion King. The destruction wrought by an angry giant monkey is worth a King Kong. The heartbreak of a goodbye between friends is worth a Finding Nemo. The Shere Khan will haunt your sleep, the Baloo cheer up your day, and the Mowgli will make every child, and adult, want to walk swinging those arms just a bit.
This is The Jungle Book reinvented for 2016, by a director who knows just how to mix the heavy blows with the light touch. It’s a little more reminiscent of the jungle and the book than the 1967 Disney classic, a lot, lot darker, and yet, ultimately, as exuberant, with a surprisingly strong and novel message at its heart, in a story that already didn’t lack them.
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There is no ‘boy being found in a basket, on a boat’ stuff here. We meet Mowgli (Neel Sethi) when already 10 and already finding himself struggling with the wolf life. While his wolf pack is as accommodating as ever, a “water truce” called due to a drought – bringing all the animals together, in peace, to a sole watering hole – brings him to the attention of the other animals in the jungle. Most are just curious, but Shere Khan (Idris Elba) is furious.
Left scarred by humans once, Shere Khan wants his revenge, and tells the wolves who have raised Mowgli (Akela and Rakhsa, voiced by Esposito and Lupita Nyong’O) that he will wait till only the rains to come after the man cub.
The time comes, and Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), who was the one to bring the infant Mowgli to the wolves, tells Raksha that he must take the boy to a “man village” for his safety. There on begin the adventures which bring Mowgli face-to-face with first Shere Khan, then the water buffaloes, Kaa, Baloo and King Louie.
Favreau, and screenplay writer Justin Marks, who struggle a bit in the beginning with all the harmony, come alive from here on as the film ventures into the jungle. This is Madhya Pradesh’s tropical-forest Kanha Tiger Reserve recreated in Los Angeles, from the creak of a dead tree and the dried tip of a grass patch, to the landslide sending a forest slipping down into the raging Pench — using the tech knowhow also behind Avatar, Gravity and Life of Pi.
However, that’s just the start. Where the film scores consistently is in its CGI-crafted talking animals, who emote and enact without anything appearing out of the ordinary. Plus, if you look hard enough, you can spot the wily wisdom of Kingsley in Bagheera, the unmatched jowly languor of Murray in Baloo, the shiny, spiky Walken in King Louie, and the actress with just the right amount of ‘ss’ (a suitably hypnotic Scarlett Johansson) in Kaa. Though nothing prepares you for the ferociousness and vehemence the mild-mannered Elba packs into Shere Khan.
There are many scenes which stand out, including Louie emerging out of the shadows after a bone-chilling lazy conversation, Shere Khan wriggling through the narrowest of tree branches (a fact about animals that one tends to overlook), and Mowgli racing through a dark forest holding aloft a torch.
It’s a Disney film alright (complete with Bare Necessities, and I Want To Be Just Like You) but you leave in the sound comfort of knowing that here is a director not just in love with your much-loved childhood story but treating it with the growing respect of an adult.
When Mowgli, told to sing, first recites the Law of the Jungle – ‘For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack’ – Baloo exclaims, “That’s not a song, that’s propaganda!” That is delightful, but so is the later realisation of the old forest wisdom that lies at the heart of it.
And while Colonel Haathi of the 1967 film may have been as memorable a Disney character as they come, this Jungle Book knows it better. When it comes to the jungle, the silent giant is one animal not to be trifled with.
Director: Jon Favreau
Voices in Jungle Book of Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’O, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito, Scarlett Johansson