The 1967 animated version of The Jungle Book was the last Disney movie made during Walt Disney's lifetime. The story goes that when the creative team first showed him the script and music, he found it too dark and encouraged the artists to further sweeten their source material, the stories by English writer Rudyard Kipling. The final movie was a children's musical full of cheerfully drawn talking animals, a happy tribe whose most predatory members were more amusing than scary and whose most delightful included a swinging orangutan voiced by Louis Prima and a quartet of vultures who sounded suspiciously like the Beatles. The memorable songs of those friendly cartoon characters still ring in many adult ears.
But Disney has greatly expanded its palette since the sixties and contemporary computers can create talking animals who look every bit as cute or as frightening as real ones. As Disney reintroduces The Jungle Book as a live-action and CGI feature in 3-D, the famed studio offers a visually stunning and highly dramatic movie that pays only brief homage to the music of its predecessor and whose threatening characters and scary moments would surely have given Walt the heebie-jeebies.
Mowgli, the man cub raised by wolves, is played by the swaggering little Neel Sethi, the only principal actor who is actually seen onscreen. He is a child filled with irrepressible charm and energy, and tends to speak his lines with the bold assurance of the smartass North American kid that he is. (He's a New York actor making his feature debut.) The effect, as he argues with the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) about his future or remonstrates with the bear Baloo (Bill Murray) when he gets stung by bees, proves comically endearing without becoming saccharine.
He also manages to make the softer moments touching; generally, his fine performance is a vindication of the decision to make the film live action – or at least to make his part of it live action. In fact, all that surrounds him is computer-generated and, however much the remarkably engaging evidence of the lush jungle, towering cliffs and powerful animals might suggest otherwise, the whole film was actually shot on a Hollywood sound stage.
Neel is then surrounded by a powerful voice cast playing the various animals, pitting Kingsley's wise Bagheera against the frightening Shere Khan voiced by Idris Elba. As scriptwriter Justin Marks both deepens and tightens the tension on the Disney story (which departed significantly from Kipling's), these actors are asked to play genuinely menacing or imperfect characters. Murray's Baloo, for example, is not merely the lovable slacker and glutton; his initial manipulation of Mowgli's innocence is distressing and Bagheera very rightly dismisses him as a con man.
Meanwhile, King Louie (Christopher Walken), once he appears from the depths of his ruined temple, is monstrous, and his desire for fire, the red flower that separates man from animal, is the ambition of a villainous megalomaniac. In keeping with this much nastier view of the ape, Walken only sing-speaks a few lines of the character's amusing quest for power, "Now I'm the king of the swingers, the jungle VIP …" while the rest of the familiar song is saved for the credits. Only Murray's Baloo gets to actually deliver his full piece, The Bear Necessities, that enduring salute to taking it easy, as he floats down the river with Mowgli.
Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) is highly adept at having his cake and eating it, too, throughout the film, wowing audiences with effects and amusing them with talking animals, all the while insisting The Jungle Book is a difficult story about a human whose presence threatens to disrupt the jungle's peace. Adults are going to appreciate that achievement, but it does pose a few problems.
First of all, this movie is scary. Today's kids, whose video games accustom them to volume, violence and startling effects, are a hardened lot compared with the children of the 1960s. Nonetheless, there are many scenes here – various attacks by Shere Khan, Mowgli's encounter with the python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and fire in the forest – that are truly frightening and certainly aren't going to work with a preschool audience.
Second, the film clearly signals to adults that the boy cannot stay with his animal friends forever – notwithstanding the obvious example of Tarzan (who gets his own remake this summer). Yet Favreau and Marks can find no palatable equivalent for the 1967 ending in which a goggle-eyed Mowgli follows a girl back to the human village. Kipling did imagine Mowgli growing up and encountering other humans in The Second Jungle Book, a work that this script has already mined for other scenes. After the surprisingly sweet yet inconclusive ending that it does offer, it's no surprise to learn that a sequel to this impressively dark version of The Jungle Book is already in the works.