PG – 108mins – 2016
With revenge-hungry Bengal tiger Shere Khan (the voice of Idris Elba) vowing to murder him as payback for the disfiguring scars man’s “red flower” (fire) left him with, abandoned man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is forced to flee the pack of his wolfen guardians and return to the human outpost on the jungle’s edge. As he makes his way through the dense Indian vegetation, young Mowgli encounters all manner of furry friends and ferocious foes in this extravagant coming-of-age ‘tail’.
From the exotic and expansive verdant forest fauna to the imprint of a paw in wet mud and the droplets of rainwater lingering in the fur of all creatures great and small, John Iron Man Favreau’s live action update of Rudyard Kipling’s classic children’s collection (1894) – and more-beloved-still 1967 hand drawn animated feature – is an absolutely dazzling feast for the eyes. What makes it more impressive still is the fact that it was filmed entirely in LA – so all locations were CG-rendered!
However (and here’s the rub), the moment any of the myriad photo-realistic beasts open their jaws to let out human voices, you’re thrown straight into uncanny valley. What worked in Disney’s vibrant and cutesy musical cartoon is harder to invest in when the million-dollar visuals are straining for – and largely achieving – a grittier aesthetic perfection.
This disassociation is not aided by newcomer Neel Sethi, who, as the sole human actor, carries the weight of being the audiences’ portal into the action. Sadly, the young lad is distractingly inconsistent in his portrayal of the feral boy, delivering wide-eyed incredulity with a pose as rigid as the towering tree trunks he scrambles up. Maybe I’m being harsh on a kid who is forced to act alongside invisible animals against green screen – but he’s too integral to the film to be given a free pass.
The audible star power behind the computer rendered creatures are also a mixed bag, ranging from flat (Lupita Nyong’o, who was a voiceover revelation in The Force Awakens) to unenthused (the usually distinctive Ben Kingsley is nigh-on unrecognisable). Only Idris Elba (sly and snarling) and Bill Murray (playful-yet-affectionate as tuneful bear Baloo) successful endow their pixels with personality.
Scarlett Johansson’s slithersome contribution is all-but s-s-s-seen in the trailer, while Christopher Walken plays giant orangutan-like King Louie as a darkly sinister mobster (right down to demanding ‘protection money’ for leaving Mowgli alone), only to undercut any earned uneasy by bursting into “I Wan’na Be Like You” – which should surely have been relegated solely to the end credits.