Neel Sethi, who, as Mowgli, is the only major character not animated, is amazingly good. He’s a charming kid, but not too cute, who looks about as much like the 1967 animated Mowgli as a human being could. He has a very expressive face, and acts very well, especially considering that most of the time he’s working with puppets and stand-ins for the other actors. He also has a good degree of athleticism, handing the character’s running and jumping quite credibly, although I suspect the more dangerous stunts were also computer augmented.
Despite the awesome cast of actors providing animal voices, I frankly wasn’t as impressed. Sir Ben Kingsley, inheriting the role of the reluctantly kind Bagheera from Sebastian Cabot, gave the role the right mixture of concern and annoyance, but many actors could have done that. Scarlett Johanssen didn’t really bring anything special to the role of Kaa. Idris Elba was unobjectionable as Shere Khan, but I remember George Sanders as bringing a greater menace to the vocal role in 1967.
The roles of Balloo and King Louie were re-written substantially, partially as part of the general updating of the script, and perhaps partly to take advantage of the talents of the assigned actors. Bill Murray’s Balloo is a wheedling con-artist, something Murray does very well, but which is quite different than the joyous loafer role given to singer Phil Harris. In the 1967 movie, the role of King Louie was also given to a performer best known for music, jazz man Louis Prima, who made the most of his musical number, “I Wanna Be Like You.” In the new film, King Louie is voiced by Christopher Walken, who does one of the things he does best, making the monstrous character quite creepy. Interestingly, the 1967 movie was noted for its edgy casting, not only in Sanders, known mostly for classy dramas, but Harris, who had invented the boozy entertainer character later patented by Dean Martin, and Prima, who, having been married five times, was not what one usually expected to be found associated with movies for children. (Both Harris and Prima went on to work with Disney on other projects.)
A word about the songs: the movie retains parts of the 1967 songs “Bare Necessities,” “Trust in Me,” and “I Wanna Be Like You,” but they are more integrated into the action and not done as set pieces. Murray is no singer and there’s no attempt to match Harris’ performance. Walken, who actually has a song-and-dance background, made King Louie’s song a megalomanical rant, which implies the question, if he wants to be (like) you, who do you get to be afterward? Johanssen gets to do a full-length and more seductive version of “Trust In Me” as part of the end titles, which are cleverly done and worth sitting through.
The updating of the script adds back some of the drama and darkness of Kipling’s work that had been sacrificed for humor in the 1967 film. In particular, the climactic confrontation with Shere Khan was exciting and satisfying. Other, more solemn elements, such as the “Law of the Pack,” and the awesomeness of the elephants, added gravity to the film.
Interestingly, the movie also departs from the 1967 version at the ending, in which Mowgli, despite having in many ways become a “man,” and no longer a “man-cub,” does NOT leave the jungle—which leaves the door open for a possible sequel.
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