The Jungle Book was always going to be one of the more difficult stops on the live action Disney remakes train. Alice in Wonderland was always ripe for a remake, and Disney went the smart route giving it to a visionary director like Tim Burton to create something unique. Maleficent took one of the most gorgeous but least interesting of the classic Disney animated films and gave us an entirely different take on the story, ditching what was familiar in order to try to replicate the popularity of Wicked. And Cinderella became a lavish spectacle, gorgeously constructed and faithful to the original but updated to give its heroine strength and an emotional core that helped her feel relevant again. I’ve enjoyed all of these live action remakes thus far, though to varying degrees, in spite of not being entirely on board with this latest movement from Disney, but I had some serious concerns about The Jungle Book. The 1967 animated version, Walt Disney’s final film, has a special place in the heart of Disney fans, but it’s also know for taking the most liberties with its source material, diverting wildly from Rudyard Kipling’s text and striking out on its own path. Would a modern version be able to find a compromise between capturing the spirit of the book and honoring a Disney legacy that should not be ignored? The answer is largely yes. This new version of The Jungle Book is a visual marvel with some of the most stunning imagery and impressive effects I’ve ever seen, one that generally manages to find a balance between widely different interpretations of the same story, anchored by a stampede of strong performances from both humans and animals alike.
Most everyone is probably familiar with the story of Mowgli, whether from the original source or its various adaptations throughout the years, and this version of The Jungle Book keeps his basic story intact. Mowgli is a young boy orphaned in the jungles of India and raised by wolves. He spends his days trying to fit in with his adopted brothers and sisters, learning the wolves’ ways and their values even as he finds himself literally unable to run with the pack. He is watched over by Bagheera, the panther who first found him and brought him to the wolves to be taught the rules of the jungle and given a home. Despite the differences between Mowgli and his family he leads a happy life, until the fearsome tiger Shere Khan returns to the jungle and learns of Mowgli’s existence. Shere Khan hates the man-cub and wants to kill him simply because he is a human and they are all to be feared due to their love of the “red flower”, fire that is capable of destroying everything even as it brings warmth and light. Shere Kahn bears the scars of a run-in with the “red flower”, and thus makes it his mission to kill Mowgli in revenge for the crimes of humanity.
So Mowgli must reluctantly leave his pack and the jungle home he loves in order to return to the man village and be a cub no longer. But the journey home is not an easy one, with numerous dangers along the way and Shere Khan’s ominous shadow seemingly right behind them. Much like Kipling’s original stories and the film’s animated predecessor, Mowgli’s journey takes on the form of a semi-episodic series of adventures and encounters. Mowgli crosses paths with the majestic elephants, the spiritual leaders of the jungle to whom other creatures bow in homage. He has a run-in with the enormous python, Kaa, whose hypnotic glare lures him close even while she teaches Mowgli a little of his own history. He teams up with Baloo, of course, the great, lazy sloth bear whose sole motivator is his stomach and who teaches Mowgli to carve his own path rather than simply following in the footsteps of others. And then there’s King Louie, the ruler of the apes, who longs to be human and to possess the secrets of man’s “red flower”, an original creation of the 1967 Disney film who does not appear in Kipling’s stories.
It seems a little unfair to put too much focus on the technical achievements of The Jungle Book, but the truth is that it features some of the most impressive visual effects ever seen on film. This jungle, crafted largely in computers rather than on set, feels as if every corner is teeming with life, like the film’s setting is a character in itself. More than any other film I can recall, The Jungle Book manages to capture the feeling of nature’s constant growth and its cyclical quality, along with its ability to both hurt and to protect. But what really stands out are the amazing characters created through a combination of performance capture and digital artistry. The various fauna feel completely lifelike in the way they move and act, as if we were watching a nature documentary, yet they also feel like characters rather than caricatures. Shere Khan may look and moves like a tiger, but he feels like a villain full of menace.
Of course, the effects worthless if the performances behind them are flat. Thankfully The Jungle Book rounded up a top-notch and diverse group of actors to fill these familiar roles, each of whom brings their own spin on these classic characters. Idris Elba stands out from the pack as Shere Khan, who can be genuinely scary while still having a bit of charm. Bill Murray is the perfect choice to play Baloo with his “forget about your worries” attitude but with a lovable, protective streak. Ben Kingsley’s Bagheera is protective of Mowgli while having a long-suffering air about him, as though Mowgli is constantly trying his patience while Lupita Nyong’o radiates with maternal emotion and conflict as Mowgli’s adoptive mother Raksha. The cast is rounded out with the likes of Scarlett Johansson (as the devious serpent Kaa), Gary Shandling, and even director Jon Favreau plays a part, but perhaps the most brilliant casting choice is Christopher Walken as King Louie. The orangutan from the animated film has been reimagined as an enormous Gigantopitecus, an extinct ape from the region, due to the fact that orangutans don’t exist in India, and this new form combined with Walken’s trademark mannerisms and style is truly a sight to behold. But the heart of the story is Mowgli, and the heart of the film is Neel Sethi making his film debut. Sethi, who is often the only “real” thing on screen, does a phenomenal job with what must have been a challenging film environment, often acting alongside placeholder puppets or nothing at all instead of his fellow cast members. Sethi’s Mowgli is a complex child, longing to fit in yet frequently defiant and willing to stand up for his uniqueness, brave and fearless yet vulnerable and easily manipulated, with a streak of humor and sass thrown in for good measure. So much of The Jungle Book depended on finding the right young actor to play Mowgli, and the filmmakers deserve full marks for the talent they uncovered.
Much of the film’s success owes itself to director Jon Favreau, who has managed to craft an effects-laden film that never gets lost in its amazing visuals or forgets to hold onto its humanity. He made the wise decision to create a film that feels realistic and echoes the more mature aspects of Kipling’s stories while still acknowledging the animated film with which so many are familiar. Mercifully, he manages to work two of the 1967 film’s most famous songs into the story in a way that feels natural without having to turn them into full-out musical numbers. (He’s aided in this by a masterful score from John Debney that frequently recalls those familiar melodies while still crafting new themes along the way.) But Favreau can only do so much, and The Jungle Book isn’t without its quibbles, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call them faults. Much like previous incarnations of the story, this film can feel a bit disjointed given the episodic nature of the source material, leaving some events feeling a bit random or disconnected. And as such, the film’s tone changes a bit too rapidly, leaving the audience struggling to keep up with the change of pace. These aren’t new issues, but they’re more pronounced in a film this epic than they ever could be in the musical romp that is the animated version.
The Jungle Book touches on many big themes, from simple, common refrains about growing up to tackling larger issues. Those looking for it can find lessons on man’s responsibility to care for nature, as well as more pressing topics like the way we should treat foreigners seeking refuge in our borders, both in how we should welcome them while still allowing them to stay true to who they are instead of forcing them to conform. But unlike last month’s Zootopia, these themes are not at the forefront of the story, nor does The Jungle Book hammer them home quite as forcefully as one might wish. Still, it’s hard to imagine an adaptation of The Jungle Book from Disney that could be any better than this. The long-delayed Warner Bros. version, directed by Andy Serkis and now not due out until 2018, won’t be beholding to the Disney legacy, and thus will have a freer hand at adapting Kipling’s book, but it also won’t be able to stand on the shoulders of the Disney interpretation of the characters that are so familiar.
But I still can’t help going back in my mind to The Jungle Book’s amazing visuals. There’s a sequence early in the film as the seasons change, the rains stop, and the river starts to dry up, eventually bringing all of the animals in the jungle into a truce so that they can all take advantage of the remaining water. The transition from the film’s opening to this dry season is one long shot that snakes its way along the river as though it’s one of those time-lapse shots seen so often in nature films. It’s simply exquisite to behold, as the leaves dry up on the trees, the water recedes down the banks of the river, and animals come and go for mere moments, perhaps even a frame at a time. I have difficulty imagining what all must have gone into a shot like that, from the initial planning stages to the digital construction of the scene to the minute details in every corner of the screen. It almost seems easier to actually go out to the jungle and set up a time-lapse camera for a few months, set to slowly move along the stream as time passes, but you could never achieve something that beautiful in real life. It’s a shot that’s almost unnecessarily complicated, difficult, and beautiful, and its purpose in the film could easily have been achieved by something simpler and less ambitious. But instead the filmmakers went the hard route, choosing to deliver something new rather than rehash the familiar even if it was easier.
It’s small moments like that beautiful shot that give me hope for Disney’s project of remaking seemingly every animated film in its library, no matter how reluctant I may be to see that actually come about. I fully understand the issues people have with some of the remakes that have come out in recent years (particularly Maleficent), specifically when it comes to the topic of faithfulness to the original. But one trend I’ve noticed throughout is the amount of care and work that has gone into these live action remakes. I may not change anyone’s mind as to whether or not these are cash grabs by Disney, but they’re definitely not cheap cash grabs, merely trying to crank out movies in the hopes of capitalizing on the nostalgia of familiar names and stories. Love them or hate them, these are lovingly crafted works of art made by expert craftsmen in all disciplines, all of which have something to say. It’s the level of care apparent in each of these remakes that gives me hope for those still to come, starting with Pete’s Dragon later this year, next year’s Beauty and the Beast (about which I am seriously excited), and continuing with a slew of others potentially including Mulan, Peter Pan, Dumbo, and many others. I’d much rather Disney spend their time on original films, even if those don’t sell as many tickets for some reason, but if they’re determined to go this route at least they’re fully committing to each film. I may not like every remake that’s to come, but I feel confident saying that I doubt I’ll be disappointed in the effort. And if they all turn out as well as The Jungle Book then I think a lot of people will be happy.
*Note: As a side note, I wanted to take a moment to comment on two really cool things about The Jungle Book that wouldn’t fit into my review, one from the beginning of the film and one from the end. The film opens with the traditional Disney titles, but rendered in a hand-drawn fashion mimicking the multi-plane animation technique pioneered by Walt Disney. The camera then pulls backwards from the logo into the jungle, a technique borrowed from Bambi. And, awesomely, the opening score track from the film’s soundtrack features this entire sequence, including the “When You Wish Upon a Star” from the Disney titles which transitions right into the film’s opening moments, something I’ve never heard on a soundtrack before.
The end of the film also borrows from early Disney animation, featuring the closing of a physical copy of The Jungle Book (the actual book used in the opening of the 1967 animated version) as a way to bring the story to a close. That’s great, but the entire credits are worth staying for, as the book pops open to give us further scenes with the film’s characters, which are clever, creative, and hilarious, all set to new versions of classic songs from the film (“The Bare Necessities”, “I Wan’na Be Like You”, and “Trust in Me”) performed in two cases by the film’s cast and in the other by Dr. John. I always like to encourage people to stay through the credits, both in order to hear the score without the distraction of dialogue and sound effects but also to acknowledge the people responsible for the film, but these credits are definitely worth sitting through for the entertainment value alone.