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We know they’re coming, The Jungle Book’s two irresistible toe-tappers, but when they do, they still manage to surprise. “The Bare Necessities” gets an added dash of New Orleans, drawled by a perfectly laconic Bill Murray as the sloth bear Baloo, while “I Wan’na Be Like You” is delivered by Christopher Walken’s gargantuan orangutan King Louie in a scatty Sprechgesang.
And it’s not just the tunes. Director Jon Favreau knows that remakes of film classics can be as unappealing as last week’s leftovers and in this new Disney version he riffs on the old Jungle Book like a jazz pro making a standard seem fresh. He gives us snatches of the earlier animation, hints at a theme but then changes a chord or emphasises an offbeat.
It’s there from the opening shot: the undergrowth parts, drawing us into the lushly immersive 3D jungle to the opening strains of the 1967 movie, but it doesn’t last long — suddenly we’re following a real, live boy (Neel Sethi) as he hurtles, shimmies and skids through the CGI treetops like a mini Tarzan with a parkour pedigree.
The Kipling-based story is broadly similar, though Shere Khan (Idris Elba) gets a more meaty storyline as the man-hating tiger who here drives a sectarian wedge through a temporary jungle truce brought on by drought and imposes himself as a quasi-dictator complete with fancy coat and penchant for pontificating. The vocal star turns are there throughout: Ben Kingsley’s patrician panther; Scarlett Johansson’s cobra susurrating “Trust in Me” in that intoxicating whiskey voice; Garry Shandling with a posthumous cameo as a whining, spineless porcupine.
The CGI has to be seen to be believed — animals so lifelike even Attenborough would do a double-take and, standing alone among the computer-fabricated fauna, is Sethi’s admirable Mowgli, carrying the film as the only human on screen, bar a few flashbacked glimpses of his father.
Through it all — action set-pieces, eco-subplots, a few frights — Favreau drives the plot like a man with a machete, clearing the way for us to be swept along, dazzled, delighted. As a writer/actor he started off as king of Swingers, exploring the mating rituals of the mid-Nineties lounge lizards. As a director (Elf, Iron Man and now this) he has evolved into a blockbuster master, a full-fledged Hollywood VIP.