By: Andrew Haas
Disney’s recent trend of adapting its animated classics into live action/CGI blockbusters irks me. I don’t see any reason to redo these memorable staples of our childhoods outside of marketing reasons. I guess since the home video/streaming market limits the financial potential of doing theatrical re-releases, a new coat of paint seems to be best way of making more money off existing properties. Though successful at the box office, these films just haven’t really worked well from an artistic standpoint. Even last year’s Cinderella was just decent, if not a bit generic. When they announced a remake of the last film Walt Disney himself worked on, The Jungle Book, I was both skeptical and curious. Unlike most people, I didn’t have much of a connection with the 1967 cartoon. I thought it was okay, but nothing that interesting, especially after reading the original works of Rudyard Kipling. On a side note, there was already a live action remake of this in 1994, which had even less to do with the book and felt more like a Tarzan knock-off. So did this remake turn out better? Honestly, it turned out way better than I thought it would.
The story stays close to the animated version where an orphan “man-cub” named Mowgli, played by newcomer Neel Sethi, is raised by wolves in the Indian jungles. But when the ferocious tiger Shere Khan, voiced by Idris Elba, threatens his life, Mowgli must leave his pack and return to his own kind. With the help of Bagheera the panther, voiced by Ben Kingsley, and Baloo the bear, voiced by Bill Murray, Mowgli goes on an epic adventure filled with fun and danger.
It’s a bit generous calling this film “live action” since the only real character is Mowgli. Everything else from the animals to the environments is completely CGI. Normally I’d say this was a cheap decision, but this film reminded me how incredible the technology can look. This is some of the best-looking CGI I have ever seen in a modern motion picture. Even during occasions when I can tell it’s computers, it still feels kind of life-like. The way the animals look and move appears very natural, even when they talk. In some areas, they go as far as to add extra animals in the background and foreground to make the world feel more alive. The way the kid fits in with the photorealistic jungle while interacting with its inhabitants is almost seamless. I saw this in IMAX 3D, and it was definitely worth the extra money. My one minor nitpick with the visuals is sometimes I wondered if Mowgli was supposed to be very little or if all the creatures were just enormous for some unknown reason. But besides that, this is definitely one of best visual experiences I’ve had since Life of Pi.
The all-star cast is nearly perfect. Each of them fit their roles well, keeping true to the original characters while also making them their own. My favorite had to be Elba, who does great as an extremely menacing Shere Khan who adds to the remake’s more dark tone. I also really enjoyed Christopher Walken as a now gigantic King Louie, who seems more like a mob boss compared to the animated film. Even newcomer Sethi did a nice job as Mowgli. He struggles in some areas, but considering how this kid had to act against practically nothing throughout production, I’m impressed with how well he did.
Even though the story sticks more to the animated classic than the actual Kipling book, I’m at least happy that they threw in a few more references such as the Law of the Jungle and the Red Flower. It’s also a little bit darker, with animal violence and other intense moments. Again, whenever Shere Khan shows up, it’s always unsettling. This is what helps make the film more interesting and engaging than the animated film, at least for me. But it doesn’t shy away from having moments of fun, particularly with Baloo’s scenes which worked quite well.
I could praise this film more, but it’s not without a few problems. While I thought Scarlett Johansson was actually effective as a female Kaa, her screen time is unfortunately short and adds very little to the story outside of exposition. The film pays a lot of homage to the 1967 film, which works for the most part. But then it does stuff like throwing in two classic songs (three when counting the end credits) and while one is integrated well, the other one is a musical number that comes right out of nowhere which feels jarring. There are also some pacing and structural issues similar to the ones in the original. Plus as much as I like the characters and their interactions with one another, the actual relationships between them could have been looked at a bit more. Finally, without spoiling anything, I’m torn on how the film concluded in a way different from the cartoon. It’s a nice ending, but I thought it would have been stronger if it ended like the classic.
While The Jungle Book doesn’t fully change my perspective on the Disney-live-action-remake trend, I’m still pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I actually thought it was better than the original in many ways. The visuals are incredible, the cast is excellent, and the story managed to be both fun and dark at the same time. Director Jon Favreau did a great job bringing this project together. I say this film is definitely worth checking out, though I’m not sure how really little kids would handle some of the harsher Shere Khan moments. If you have the money to see it in 3D, that’s even better. Will this be the new definitive cinematic version of the Kipling classic? Well… frankly, I’m waiting to see how Andy Serkis’s version in 2018 turns out.