Raised by a family of wolves since birth, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) must leave the only home he’s ever known when the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) unleashes his mighty roar. Guided by a no-nonsense panther (Ben Kingsley) and a free-spirited bear (Bill Murray), the young boy meets an array of jungle animals, including a slithery python and a smooth-talking ape. Along the way, Mowgli learns valuable life lessons as his epic journey of self-discovery leads to fun and adventure.
Well, no point really … other than simply to create a terrifically enjoyable piece of old-fashioned storytelling and a beautiful-looking film: spectacular, exciting, funny and fun. It handsomely revives the spirit of Disney’s original film, while also having something of old-school family movies about animals like The Incredible Journey (1963) – it almost feels like something I could have watched as a kid on TV. Yet also, weirdly, there’s a touch of Mel Gibson’s jungle nightmare Apocalypto (2006).
Perhaps most strikingly of all, it re-imports into the story elements of the Disney classic The Lion King (1994) which The Jungle Book influenced in the first place: there’s a special rock for the animals to gather round, a stampede scene and an evil feline with a facial disfigurement.
Newcomer Neel Sethi plays Mowgli himself; Ben Kingsley voices Bagheera the panther; Idris Elba is the evil tiger Shere Khan; Scarlett Johansson is the hissing snake mesmerist Kaa; Christopher Walken is the voice of King Louie the fire-hungry ape and inevitably – but pleasingly, and very amusingly – Bill Murray is an outstanding vocal turn as the notorious ursine slacker and pleasure-seeker Baloo the bear who teaches Mowgli the importance of kicking back and enjoying the bare necessities of life.
I’ve never seen digital rendering of talking animals look so persuasive and this film also creates witty and ingenious twists on the story we all know, including a new plot development concerning wolf-leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Shere Khan – and even creates a backstory for Mowgli which explains how he got that modesty-preserving loincloth of his.
It’s not a musical and yet the deployment of two famous songs – The Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You – feels easy and natural. Actually, the film emphatically revives Kipling’s poem The Law of the Jungle with its collective all-for-one ethic: “The strength of the pack is the wolf/And the strength of the wolf is the pack.” Baloo prefers songs to poems and calls that one “propaganda”.
Interestingly, where the first film finally sticks to a never-the-twain-shall-meet attitude to humans’ long-term cohabitation with animals, this one posits the idea of living together happily (though that size of loincloth can’t last for ever). As I said, this sacrifices the original’s bittersweet acknowledgment that Mowgli must one day grow up and look for romance.