The Jungle Book | Film review - Live-action take on Kipling's classic thrills, amuses and delights

The Jungle Book Mowgli Neel Sethi.jpg
(Image credit: Disney)
(Image credit: Disney)

The Jungle Book, Disney’s new live-action adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic stories is not nearly so cuddly as the studio’s beloved 1967 animated classic, but it’s a spectacularly entertaining family film in its own right.

Iron Man director Jon Favreau’s gets things off to a thrilling start as 10-year-old Mowgli (impishly charming newcomer Neel Sethi) hurtles and swings through the jungle like a pint-sized Tarzan, reminding us of the debt Edgar Rice Burroughs’s ape-man owed to Kipling’s boy raised by wolves.

When Mowgli comes to a standstill and the animals that have been pursuing him start speaking, the movie comes down to earth with a bit if a jolt. Yet it doesn’t take long to adjust to the film’s talking CGI creatures, give or take the odd jarring instance of current American slang, as when Gary Shandling’s fussy porcupine mutters ‘My bad’.

Indeed, thanks in part to the impressive muscular heft the movie gives the animals, the world it conjures up is actually a good deal closer to the darker tone of Kipling’s original tales than was its cartoon predecessor.

Ben Kingsley’s panther Bagheera may have a purring patrician accent, but the lesson he is at pains to impart to his protégé Mowgli is that nature in the jungle is red in tooth and claw. Drop your guard and you might get eaten.

The biggest peril comes from tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba, fearsome yet lacking George Sanders’ silky menace in the animated version), whose mortal enmity to the man-cub threatens to drive him out of the jungle. Scarlett Johansson’s seductively sinister python Kaa and Christopher Walken’s fire-desiring giant ape King Louie (portrayed here as a prehistoric Gigantopithecus rather than an orang-utan) provide additional dangers.

Fortunately, this Jungle Book is fun as well as frightening, particularly when Bill Murray’s laid-back hustler of a bear, Baloo, appears on the scene, lazily tricking Mowgli into risking life and limb to supply him with honey. Mowgli has his own ‘tricks’ to help him fulfil this task, although Bagheera disapproves of his penchant for tool making - a sign of his human nature and a reminder that he doesn’t truly belong in the jungle.

Favreau and his crew prove as nimbly adept as Mowgli in tackling their film’s challenges and only stumble when it comes the songs. The Sherman Brothers’ tunes were such a captivating feature of the 1967 adaptation that it’s easy to see why Favreau would want to shoehorn one or two numbers into his otherwise non-musical version.

Sadly, Murray’s off-key rendition of ‘The Bare Necessities’ isn’t a patch on Phil Harris’s original, although Walken, turning King Louie into a Brandoesque Mafioso, has a better stab at ‘I Wan’na Be Like You’. These are minor cavils. For most of its running time, this Jungle Book thrills, amuses and delights.

Certificate PG. Runtime 106 mins. Director Jon Favreau

Jason Best

A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.