I can’t claim to have read any of the Rudyard Kipling stories that serve as the source material for both the movie I’m reviewing now and its beloved predecessor, the 1968 animated Disney classic. But even still: I felt, palpably, the whispers of his original tale emanating from the screen at points in this film, this film, which is a marvel to behold and a glory to listen to. Never has such a talented and charismatic voice cast been combined with such a spectacle for the eye. Never.
That’s not to say that there aren’t flaws in Jon Favreau’s take on the well-known legend. The pacing is a tad choppy, the dialogue a bit saccharine at times. But those are merely rough edges on the sumptuous tapestry that the Iron Man director and his effects team have woven here. And those effects are perhaps the most astonishing since Avatar forever altered the cinematic landscape over six years ago.
But before we get to the main course, let’s not forget the delectable side dishes and appetizers. The story, of course, is that of Mowgli, the orphaned “man cub” raised by wolves and an oddly soft-hearted black panther named Bagheera (voiced by the incomparable Ben Kingsley). The novice Neel Sethi plays him admirably, and, in some scenes, actually steals the show with his deliveries (something made even more impressive when you remember that he delivered said lines on a green-screen sound stage to thin air). His performance has dips and potholes, sure, but that’s to be expected of an actor of his age and in his circumstances.
The rest of the cast predictably shines. Bill Murray infuses Baloo the bear with his bubbly, lopsided charm, Lupita N’yongo aches as a mother without her child, and Idris Elba, perhaps the most perfectly cast as the bunch, practically growls through every word he says as Shere Khan, Bengal tiger and de facto king of the eponymous jungle.
And this jungle is not the one you might have visited in your childhood. The movie is peppered with deeply dark moments, many of which echo almost to the frame another Disney masterpiece that heavily features big, talking cats: The Lion King. In that way, it’s not the whimsical, fluffy 90-minute musical number that its namesake is. It’s a juicy, mature meal that parents can sink their teeth into as well. This movie’s King Louie, in particular, is a deliciously scary iteration of the clownish character that pranced about on screen almost a half-century ago.
And not to beat a dead horse, but all of the above is made possible by the nothing-short-of magic that Weta Digital and Movie Picture Company have put to screen. Every hair, every speck of dust in the air has clearly been meticulously crafted to give the film an undeniably immersive feeling, and that immersion serves the story well in both its comedic and – more commonly – gravely serious moments.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of lighthearted fare and physical humor to keep the children entertained. But this movie isn’t a one-trick pony. It goes above and beyond the scope of the cartoon original and becomes an engrossing – and many times legitimately haunting – epic.