As a CGI bear named Baloo in Disney’s new, live-action The Jungle Book, Bill Murray channels the kind of surrogate-big-brother camp counselor that made him famous in Meatballs. He doesn’t try to hit the exact same notes as Phil Harris in the 1967 animated classic, but it’s the same principle—laidback, laconic, irresponsible but protective—capturing the essence while doing something new.
That’s the strength director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Marks bring to this update, which honors the iconography of the original while restoring some of the darkness of Rudyard Kipling’s stories, which Walt Disney himself had cut from the cartoon—the last he worked on before his death.
In a pleasant surprise, The Jungle Book is a gorgeously rendered all-ages adventure that contains actual emotion and suspense. I was surprised to find myself tearing up a few times, and to find the tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) one of the most terrifying movie villains in some time. Far from the smarmy tones of George Sanders, he’s a bitter, scarred, coiled engine of death. At least one moment when he jumped out of nowhere made me glad I’d gone to the bathroom before hitting the theater.
The movie is anchored by an impressive debut performance from twelve-year-old Neel Sethi as Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves in a remarkably durable red cloth diaper. Sethi is in almost every scene, frequently in the midst of elaborate action, shot in such a way that it seems like he really is running around tree branches or hanging over cliffs. (He has a number of scratches and bites by the end of the film, perhaps not all of which are makeup). More importantly, you believe that he accepts the animals as people, and that this jungle world is normal for him.
It helps that the special effects are convincing, too. The animals mostly mimic the looks of their real-life counterparts, and get laughs simply by acting like animals. There’s no topical humor or overt slapstick; the animals’ physicality informs their personalities, and the one-liners are kept to a minimum. (One of the recurring figures is a nervous porcupine voiced by the recently passed Garry Shandling.)
The main roles feel appropriate rather than gimmicky. Along with Murray and Elba, there’s Lupita Nyong'o as Mowgli’s protective wolf mother, Scarlett Johansson as seductive Kaa the serpent, Ben Kingsley as regal Bagheera the panther, and Christopher Walken as King Louie. Walken’s halting vocals were the only time I identified a character more with the performer than with what was on screen. Louie is a powerful visual—a Kong-sized orangutan with a gangster-like attitude, far from Louis Prima’s lovable jive-talker. But don’t worry: “Be Like You” remains, as does “The Bear Necessities.”
The Jungle Book’s plot, with Mowgli torn between returning to the human world to escape Shere Khan and saving his animal family, eventually turns a little formulaic. But it achieves powerful moments in its climax, and it turns some of the cartoon’s, and even Kipling’s, messages on their head. Maybe Mowgli can be a man and a wolf, and the four-legged adopted clan can be the “real” family, in this more modern version of the tale. There’s a sequel already greenlit. Perhaps Mowgli can put off going back to the humans a little longer. Who would want to, with friends like these?