The Jungle Book - Shere khan

Idris Elba’s Shere Khan Dominates an All-Star Cast

The Jungle Book has a voice cast to rival any blockbuster franchise or ensemble prestige drama’s, and all of them bring their A-game. Their efforts, however, do not all pay off equally. By far the best performance in the movie is Elba’s as Shere Khan. He radiates menace, and the low rumble of his voice melds seamlessly with the roars of a tiger. Elba boasts a commanding presence even in his warmest roles, so it naturally follows that he makes for an imposing villain. But Elba, and Justin Marks‘ screenplay, give the character a much-needed depth. Part of what makes Shere Khan so terrifying is that he’s not driven by some abstract desire for power or taste for destruction — the conflict is deeply personal to him, and that only makes him seem more dangerous and more determined. Disney could teach their Marvel Studios brethren a thing or two about crafting believable and compelling supervillains.

Kingsley also acquits himself quite nicely, disappearing into the role of Bagheera, and Murray is such a perfect fit for Baloo that even though it’s impossible to forget whose voice we’re listening to, it’s easy to believe him as a big, lazy bear. On the flip side, Walken proves a little too distinctively oddball for the role of Louie — a problem exacerbated by the decision to make Louie look like Walken as well as sound like him — and Johnasson isn’t onscreen long enough for us to reconcile the weirdness of hearing this A-list actress’ husky voice slink forth from the lips of a cobra.

As for Sethi, the only non-animated member of the Jungle Book cast, he acquits himself pretty nicely for a preteen. His line readings are occasionally exaggerated (as tends to be the norm for child actors), but he’s got enough charisma to smooth over any shortcomings. Even more crucially, he’s a natural as a physical actor. As Mowgli, he moves like a kid who grew up wild — he has the fluidity of someone who never stops moving, and the grace of someone utterly comfortable in his own skin.

The Jungle Book TV Spot

Mowgli’s Journey Is the Beating Heart

While the film’s visual achievements and rockstar cast are its most marketable attributes, it’s clear Marks and Favreau haven’t slouched on the underlying emotion, either. The Jungle Book is a rock-solid coming-of-age tale, brimming with the excitement and the terror and even the sadness of growing up. As a man-cub among animals, Mowgli’s never quite fit in — “I realize you weren’t born a wolf, but can’t you at least act like one?” sighs an exasperated Bagheera at one point — but the jungle is still home. It’s not until Shere Khan arrives that Mowgli is shaken out of his complacency, and forced to confront his own identity. Is he truly one of the wolves, who’ve loved him and cared for him since infancy? Or is he a man who belongs in the man-village, brandishing the “red flower” (fire) that the other animals regard with awe and fear?

Mowgli’s journey of self-discovery is sometimes subdued in favor of more thrilling setpieces or more cutesy gags, but it’s a thread that runs through the entire movie. Mowgli’s human-ness is what makes him special, but it’s also what makes him strange and even threatening to his own animal community, who see humans as a threat. Mowgli’s reasons for wanting to return to the man-village — and Bagheera’s for encouraging and guiding him — are sound, but the film makes a point of acknowledging what Mowgli stands to lose. “They’ll ruin him. They’ll make a man out of him,” protests Baloo when Bagheera tells him of his plan. It’s hard not to think that Baloo has a point, and when the tension between Mowgli’s human and animal sides comes to a head in the third act, it’s a surprisingly heart-wrenching moment.

THE JUNGLE BOOK

The Singular Magic of Going to the Movies

All of my memories of watching the 1967 Jungle Book involve living rooms — growing up, I only ever watched it on VHS tapes, at my own childhood home or someone else’s. No doubt countless kids will experience Favreau’s new Jungle Book the same way, playing it over and over from their parents’ iTunes accounts. And it’s a film that deserves to be treasured that way. Mowgli’s arc should resonate across the ages, and friendly talking animals never seem to go out of fashion. The painstaking visuals will still look lush and vibrant on a TV set or a tablet or a smartphone screen, and maybe one day we’ll be reminiscing fondly about this film as the start of Sethi’s illustrious career.

But these kids will be missing the extra layer of magic that bumps up The Jungle Book from a sturdy remake to a must-see spectacle — the how-did-they-do-it amazement of seeing it on a giant screen, where you can see each fluttering blade of grass and each trembling breath from the snout of a wolf. Not to mention the experience of watching a vibrant fantasy unfold like it’s happening mere inches in front of you, even as your brain knows you’re really just looking at pixels laid atop many, many hours of footage of a little boy leaping across green screens. The Jungle Book won’t “save” moviegoing; no one movie can. But it makes a strong case, to serious cinephiles and casual consumers alike, that the experience is one worth saving.

/Film rating: 8.0 out of 10

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