Raised by wolves young man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) learns how to survive in the jungle from the wise panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley). Yet the man-cub remains defenseless against his mortal enemy, the most feared predator in the jungle, Shere-Khan (Idris Elba) the tiger. He swears that at the return of the rainy season he will end Mowgli's life. Rather than endanger the wolf pack Mowgli nobly elects to rejoin his own kind and journeys to a human village with Bagheera as his guide. On the way there Shere-Khan attacks, separating the pair, whereupon Mowgli ventures through the jungle alone.
At the dawn of the millennium the Disney studio was mired in a crass and cynical sequel boom of which one of the very worst products was The Jungle Book 2 (2003). Lately, in the highly lucrative wake of Alice in Wonderland (2010), Maleficent (2014) and Cinderella (2015) one could argue they continue to exploit our nostalgia for past classics for the sake of an easy profit. Yet Disney's latest remake of an animated favourite as a live-action 3D spectacular stands as their most accomplished yet. Its barnstorming success is due entirely to the care and attention Iron Man (2008) helmer Jon Favreau (in a triumphant return to blockbuster filmmaking) and screenwriter Justin Marks invest in the material, preserving the best aspects of the past whilst taking the familiar storyline somewhere new. In that sense, The Jungle Book belongs to a current cinematic trend exemplified by Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed (all 2015), all films that build on the past, co-opt crowd-pleasing, familiar iconic motifs and invest their mythology with more resonant drama. Walt Disney's original The Jungle Book (1967) remains indisputably one of the greatest animated films of all time but is not especially faithful to Rudyard Kipling's poetic literary source. Favreau's remake wisely keeps one foot in the sing-along-with-the-Sherman Brothers dance party atmosphere of the cartoon but its heart and themes reflect Kipling.
Much as James Cameron achieved with Avatar (2009) Favreau creates a truly immersive environment using state-of-the-art digital technology and, even a skeptic like myself must begrudgingly admit, the 3D format. The viewer is engulfed in a living, breathing jungle and shares Mowgli's visceral reaction to spectacular set-pieces like the buffalo stampede, encounter with Kaa the serpent (Scarlett Johansson, seductively sinister - she also performs a sublime rendition of 'Trust In Me' over the end credits) and amazing battle with King Louie (Christopher Walken – coming across like a mix between King Kong and a mafia don and, much like his performance of 'I Wanna Be Like You', somehow both amusing and terrifying) and his monkey army in the ancient ruins. Yet Favreau wisely adopts the strategy Martin Scorsese employed in Hugo (2011) by making the 3D format an extension of the story's central theme. Like Hugo, Mowgli is a boy hero able to perceive aspects of reality other characters do not see. His human intellect proves both his defining heroic quality (given the context it is akin to a superpower) and that which serves to alienate him from his animal friends. This makes him an ambiguous presence in the jungle, something Shere-Khan shrewdly exploits. If Shere-Khan represents base, amoral savagery (he perpetrates a fair few shock moments and suspenseful scenes) then Mowgli embodies civilization which as the film makes clear, in its own understated, ambiguous fashion, could be as much of a threat to the sanctity of jungle life.
In conveying Mowgli's inner conflict and yearning for acceptance, the filmmakers could ask for no greater gift than remarkable child actor Neel Sethi. Happily we finally have an ethnically correct Mowgli although some critics took exception to Sethi's American accent. Truth be told his physical performance is so empathetic and engaging most can easily overlook his transatlantic twang which, in retrospect, might be a conscious decision on Disney's part to evoke memories of original voice actor Bruce Reitherman. Interestingly Idris Elba drew no such criticism even though his distinctively South London accent sounds just as anachronistic (had the film been made only a few years earlier, one imagines the late, great Alan Rickman would have been a shoo-in) though his performance improves considerably as the film goes on and exudes genuine menace. Everyone else is pitch perfect from Lupita Nyong'o and Giancarlo Esposito as Mowgli's wolf parents right down to the late Garry Shandling as Ikki the porcupine. In the rush to uphold a state of constant eye-popping peril, the film arguably lacks levity by comparison with the colourful fun of the original. Nevertheless things brighten up once Bill Murray appears on the scene as stoner bear Balloo. As in the 1967 cartoon, the CGI spruced new Baloo proves the standout supporting player and is here given an intriguing new character arc, going from cynical opportunist to both the hero's most effective mentor and guardian and arguably the film's real moral centre. And when Murray bursts into his own delightfully lackadaisical take on 'Bear Necessities' we are in Disney heaven.