If it’s true that there are no more than a handful of stories to be told, Mowgli’s fronting up to his hateful stalker, Shere Khan the tiger, probably falls into the ‘High Noon’ category, ie, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. There is more to it than that, of course, in Jon Favreau’s exuberant take on Rudyard Kipling’s timeless tale of the boy raised by wolves in the forests of India, but Mowgli’s dealing with his nemesis is what drives this movie.
Scarred by his only encounter with a human, Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) is pursuing his vendetta in the belief that there is no place in the animal world for the corrupting influence of Man. Mowgli, having been mentored by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), the black panther, reluctantly decides to leave his home in the jungle and return to the village life from which he was separated as a baby. Along the way he strikes up a friendship with the bear Baloo (Bill Murray), and the odd couple spend happy days together swimming and eating honeycomb – but the tiger is always lurking. There is also a malevolent Colonel Kurtz-type orangutan (Christopher Walken) living in an abandoned temple, a seductive giant python (Scarlett Johansson) and a host of other fabulous characters. But at the heart of it all is Neel Sethi in his little red dhoti. The spring-heeled young fellow is brilliant as Mowgli – his American accent does not grate in the least and he even manages to surpass Sabu of cherished memory.
This is a fantastic, beautiful film, funny and enriching – the moment when Mowgli encounters the elephants and his eyes meet those of the herd’s calf is profoundly moving – and for kids I would imagine that its occasional threatened savagery would be quite scary. The message of togetherness expressed in the poem spoken by the wolves is essential learning (Kipling’s book has numerous such songs and poems), and if Bill Murray singing The Bare Necessities is not enough to lift your spirits then nothing will be.