Jon Favreau’s delightful and funny take on the Rudyard Kipling’s tale of a boy raised by wolves is an all around winner. Kids and adults will love the talking and sporadically singing animals, while adults and some of the cooler kids will like the movie references and clever Easter eggs.
The story is pretty simple: A young boy raised in the jungle is pursued by a pissed off tiger (Idris Elba) who had his face burned by a human when he was young (shades of Darth Vader). When plans to leave for a human village are rudely interrupted, Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) winds up staying in the jungle longer than he planned, and he must keep wearing the same pair of red baggy shorts. He encounters Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), an evil temptress snake, and other perils while building a special friendship with a big bear.
And, as far as I could see, he never stops to wash those red shorts. A swim in the river doesn’t count. You need detergent.
Bill Murray is, indeed, a masterstroke of vocal casting as Baloo, the big bear who befriends Mowgli on his extended jungle trek. Casting Christopher Walken as King Louie, the Kong-sized master of all apes in the jungle, actually tops the Murray casting feat. It gives Favreau’s film an opportunity to become truly weird, very funny, and even a little scary.
While not a bona fide musical, Favreau does find some clever ways to mix musical performance into the movie. Baloo and Mowgli happily sing a part of “The Bare Necessities” together while floating down a river, accompanied by a full orchestra led by John Debney. It’s great, but it’s not the film’s musical highlight. The highlight comes when Walken’s King Louie, portrayed with undertones of Brando’s Colonel Kurtz, suddenly busts out “I Wanna Be Like You.” Walken is perfect for the song and perfect for the character, making the scene an instant classic. The special effects are topnotch.
The story is in service of some incredible special effects that seamlessly mesh live animals, motion capture work, and puppetry. The talking animals actually look like they are really talking as opposed to animals with cartoon mouths yapping away.