But at every step, the director Jon Favreau and the screenwriter Justin Marks have enriched the narrative, deepened the themes, and ratcheted the tension and emotion alike to unanticipated levels. Mowgli’s journey is now a much more vivid transition from cubhood toward autonomy, his human “tricks” and tool-making cast in clearer contrast to the wildness of the jungle. Is there a place for him there, or does he truly stand apart?
Each of the animal principals, moreover, offer Mowgli a different path to follow. There is Bagheera’s plan for civic safety and Baloo’s Arcadian escapism, of course. But Kaa, too (cunningly voiced by Scarlett Johansson), offers a beguiling—if presumably short-lived—intimacy. (“You can be with me, if you want. I’ll keep you near,” she purrs, coils slowly tightening.) And thanks to the equally delicious casting of Christopher Walken as King Louie, his offer of “protection” attains another dimension altogether. Moreover this time out, Mowgli’s ultimate decision is both more satisfying and better in keeping with the temper of the times, the belated correction of a moral and cinematic flaw almost half a century old.
Ben Kingsley is such an obvious pick to voice the benevolent concern of Bagheera that it’s almost hard to imagine the filmmakers considering anyone else. Choosing Bill Murray for Baloo was a greater gamble, but rather than descend into schtick, he offers a gentle, almost wistful interpretation of the big bear. Shere Khan may have been trickiest casting of all, given the towering vocal performance with which George Sanders supplied the original film. But the choice of Idris Elba offers an ingenious alternative: a tiger less urbane and still more menacing, fearsome in his nonchalant physicality. Lupita Nyong’o, meanwhile, is remarkably moving in the expanded (though still small) role of Raksha, Mowgli’s wolf-mother.
The CGI—which encompasses not only all of these characters, but the entire cinematic environment as well—is a modest revelation, once again extending the boundaries of the possible. (It’s a development about which I continue to have mixed feelings.) And as for virtually the sole human being in the middle of all this technological splendor, newcomer Neel Sethi is good if not exactly indelible as Mowgli. Perhaps inevitably for a boy inhabiting a universe that will be largely conjured around him after the fact, Sethi offers a performance that is less acting than embodiment—but he embodies Mowgli impeccably, right down to the floppy haircut and the red swaddle-diaper.
The visuals conjured by Favreau and the cinematographer Bill Pope are consistently first-rate, from the intense action sequences—a stunning stampede of water buffalo, more than one life-or-death encounter with Shere Khan—to the moments of quieter beauty: a frog wiping a raindrop off its head; a regal simian cityscape; a recently shed snakeskin large enough to sheathe a school bus. The enchantingly inventive credit sequence that concludes the movie is almost worth the price of admission all on its own.