Forget about your worries, and your strife. Disney’s controversial decision to make a new version of The Jungle Book, combining a live-action Mowgli and VFX of… well, pretty much everything else, has paid off handsomely. Quite literally: this is one of the most gorgeous blockbusters of recent years, which is astonishing when it is almost entirely fake. It doesn’t look real, exactly, but it looks like the jungle of a beautifully illustrated storybook, each landscape created with such incredible thought and detail that the eye doesn’t quite know where to look.
The story, you know, though Disney have retrieved more elements from Rudyard Kipling’s stories to keep up with the need for darker shades in their endless cycle of remakes. Mowgli, played by the appealing if unpolished newcomer Neel Sethi, is rescued by black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and raised as part of the wolf pack, gaining a devoted mother in the form of Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). But when the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) sniffs the mancub in the jungle, Mowgli’s life is under threat.
Director Jon Favreau has form in both family entertainment (Elf, Zathura) and huge blockbusters (Iron Man and its first sequel), and he combines both modes together here; this is a family film, to be sure, but it is at its core quite dark and morbid, with one ruthless kill by Shere Khan sure to induce some gasps in the audience. 1967’s Shere Khan was a drawling, fey villain, but Elba’s scarred hunter is straight up terrifying, his gruff London drawl lingering menacingly over every word, embossed with the rough growls of a real tiger. He’s a completely unforgiving villain, his shadow imposing over every second of the film, even when Mowgli has temporarily escaped to the carefree eye of Baloo, voiced divinely by Bill Murray.
The Jungle Book is pretty much expertly cast from top to bottom, with only Scarlett Johansson missing the mark as a rather too icy Kaa, the snake who almost proves Mowgli’s untimely end. Kingsley is a watchful, weary Bagheera; Nyong’o an inspired choice as the wise and melancholy wolf mother; Christopher Walken an imposingly charismatic King Louie. There are nods to the animated film in lackadaisical recreations of ‘Bare Necessities’ and ‘I Wan’na Be Like You’, which give the film an otherworldly feel that it miraculously pulls off.
But the real star here is the visual effects. As charming as the effects in Babe remain, The Jungle Book stands as a huge step forward in terms of animating realistic animals to appear able to speak; this, too, pushes the film into a strange dimension where the audience hangs between realism and fiction. The creatures here look astonishingly real, and to have them then moving their jaws as if words are issuing from them, and to believe that; it’s a revelation. If the story itself remains essentially lacking in terms of total cohesion and dramatic propulsion, what Disney have done here is create a world so peculiarly believable, it truly has to be seen to be believed.
The Jungle Book is in cinemas from Friday 15 April.