I watched another version of this movie when I was very young. I don't remember much, but I can still see that this new one has such breathtaking animation that it fairly eclipses the other. The characters and basic story-line are the same: Mowgli the boy who was raised by wolves and the antagonist, a Royal Bengal tiger, Shere Khan, who posits (quite logically one might add) that mankind will ultimately only bring destruction to the jungle.
Bent on exterminating the man-cub, the posh Brit-accented tiger leaves no stone unturned in his mission, even casually killing the alpha male of Mowgli's wolf pack. He is a realist in one sense of the word with a laser focus on his own power, who sees Mowgli as the threat to the jungle and ultimately to his own supremacy. He is a strategist, subtly threatening the existing peace in the watering hole and using his own backstory to give himself credibility. Mowgli, on the other hand, is just a kid. A human kid, so he makes the difficult decision to leave the jungle for the betterment of all.
But this wouldn't be a Disney movie without a few adorable other characters; Bagheera the gorgeous black panther, wise and experienced; Baloo the big sloth bear who is endearingly goofy and honey-crazed; and then, in a cameo appearance that had me wanting more, the python Kaa with her hypnotic gaze and seductive voice. And when I say seductive, I mean it's the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Seriously, what a casting coup! Why did they reduce her role to a mere two minutes?
Somewhere along the journey of ''whether to leave the jungle or not" Mowgli rescues an elephant calf from a pit, helps Baloo garner tons of honey, sings songs with him floating down the river, and then runs into a colony of monkeys living in a strange ruined temple with er- get this- a giant Orangutan as their leader. Now this ape (Christopher Walken, no less) has grand designs also- he wants to be more like Mowgli, ergo human and one can infer, 'civilized' in a manner of speaking. This all leads to a very pitched and frankly disturbing battle between the hundreds of monkeys and Mowgli and his friends. The animation was rather too good here, almost...something about the swarms of shrieking monkeys, teeth bared, left me a bit unsettled.
And the final battle? In this version, Mowgli obtains the Red Flower- the beautiful jungle term for that most human of elements- fire, and the torch plays a vital role in the outcome, as do the aforementioned elephants. There is another pitched battle, this time quite impressively staged in the burning jungle, and Shere Khan falls. This dramatic denouement, however, was rather marred by the little girl in the next row who yelled, "YAY!" at the exact moment the tiger meets his death, causing the entire row to erupt in giggles. Oh well.
Neel Sethi is perfectly shaggy-haired, big-eyed and jungle-scarred as Mowgli. Ingenious and impetuous, he's also mature beyond his years but never precocious. Bagheera was appropriately serious and very much the adult (Ben Kingsley) and then Mowgli's wolf-mother was Lupita Nyong'o who has a really rich and memorable voice. My favorite though, after the regrettably short-lived appearance of the enigmatic Kaa, would have to be Baloo: Bill Murray seemed to be having a grand time as the wheedling, hedonistic, lovable bear. Kaa does make another appearance of sorts in the end credits, where she sings in her she-could-be-a-jazz-legend voice.
Now I want Disney to make yet another version, this time with Kaa as the main star. There is the little matter of my extreme snake-phobia to consider, but I will eat caramel popcorn and all will be jolly.