It’s a brave man who takes on a classic like The Jungle Book (John Favreau, in case you were wondering) and emerges from the experience without a generous portion of egg spread across his face. There are already two knockout screen adaptations. As a youngster, I remember being thrilled by the Alexander Korda-produced version, starring Sabu – and who doesn’t love Disney’s 1967 animation, the last film that Walt actually had a personal hand in making? So I admit, I expected this to be at best, so-so. But those expectations were kicked out of the ball park within moments of the film actually starting. Make no mistake, this is a magical production in the purest sense of the word. That creaking sound you’ll hear in the cinema? The sound of an audience’s jaws collectively dropping.
I’m not going into the plot, since it’s so well-known, but suffice to say that Favreau and his team have created a stunning CGI word where everything, from the biggest mammal to the tiniest insect is rendered in absolutely believable detail. The time was (not so very long ago) when you looked at a CGI tiger and thought, ‘hmm, not bad but you can tell it’s not the real thing.’ In The Jungle Book, however, the only element that tells you that Shere Kahn isn’t the real McCoy is that a real tiger wouldn’t tend to talk like Idris Elba. (Elba, by the way, manages to invest his animal character with absolute menace.)
As the only human actor onscreen, twelve year old newcomer Neel Sethi looks like Disney’s animated Mowgli come to life – (i.e. adorable) and though the likes of Bill Murray (Baloo) Scarlett Johansson (Kaa) and Ben Kingsley (Bagheera) merely provide voiceovers for their animal counterparts, somehow, their human characteristics shine through. It’s an extraordinary achievement and one can only wonder how Sethi managed to accomplish his role against nothing more inspirational than a blue screen.
Some caveats? Well, I do have a couple. After a while, you notice that the animals are rendered much bigger (150% bigger) than they actually are in real life. OK, we’re told that King Louie is a Gigantopithecus, but in this world, even a baby elephant towers over Mowgli. Favreau maintains that this was a deliberate move to show the animals ‘as they would appear to Mowgli’ but I can’t help wondering if it was really necessary. Also, he decided to incorporate a couple of the better known songs from the animation – this is a Disney studio picture, after all, so perhaps he felt obliged to honour the film’s progenitor. Mowgli and Baloo’s affectionate rendering of The Bear Necessities is fine, but the scene where King Louie (Christopher Walken) sings I Wanna Be Like You-Hoo-Hoo to Mowgli feels like the film’s one misstep and frankly it’s good enough to have skipped that detail (especially as we get a reprise of the song over the end credits).
But these are minor niggles. The mere fact that a packed audience of youngsters sat in absolute silence throughout the screening will give you some indication of just how appealing this film is. They absolutely loved it… and here was one sixty four year old who was in total agreement with them.