Jon Favreau’s reworking of Disney’s reworking of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is much bloodier in tooth and claw than the 1967 cartoon. Realised in astonishing CGI, with a very small amount of live action (Neel Sethi, as Mowgli, is the only flesh-and-bone character), it makes the life of a young boy brought up in the jungle less of a song-filled lark than a constant opportunity for being eaten.
The plot remains basically the same: baby Mowgli was found in the jungle and raised by wolves, watched over by a panther babysitter, hunted by a vengeful tiger. When said tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), swears to kill him, Mowgli has to escape the animal world.
It’s quite episodic, with Mowgli’s adventure boiling down to a series of introductions to new animals who want to manipulate him for their own ends, but Favreau uses the quite thin story as an opportunity to give much of the running time to action sequences. He doesn’t waste any of them, gifting each thrillingly edited chase its own personality. Mowgli tears through the tree tops to escape the rampaging tiger, through a crumbling temple, downriver as he’s pursued by a landslide and tumbling wildebeest. CGI can be soulless when it’s used unimaginatively, but used here to create lush, impossible worlds and animals so real you feel you could reach out and pet them, it becomes something magical.
It’s not all threat; there’s plenty of fun too, largely thanks to the voice casting of Bill Murray as Baloo, the bear who becomes Mowgli’s partner in very low-level crime, mostly against bees. You just inherently want to hang with Bill Murray, even when he’s hidden behind digital fake fur. There’s only really one significant misstep in it, when it tries to work in one of the popular songs from the musical, ‘I Wanna Be Like You’, by having a giant orangutan (Christopher Walken) randomly break into song part way through a big speech. It’s bizarre and wrong. That sort of awkward attempt to tie itself to its predecessor is unnecessary. It’s done enough to become beloved in its own right.