Like many other people, I grew up watching Disney films. Among the classics of Aladdin, The Lion King and The Fox and the Hound, was The Jungle Book.
So naturally, with The Jungle Book having a firm place in my childhood, I was both excited and nervous to see how Jon Favreau handled the live action remake.
First let’s address the CGI. Obviously, being that 95% of the cast are animals, this was critical for them to get right to get that suspension of disbelief. But, thankfully, the $175 million budget was put to good use and all of the animals look fantastic.
I can’t speak for the 3D, as this was the 2D showing, but the CGI in this film is truly a master work. It’s not only that the animals look realistic in terms of the small details like their fur, eyes and general shape, but the movement is what really sells it. When Shere Khan first appears in the film, he is sleeking in front of the camera, and you can almost see the muscles working as walks threateningly in a hunting stance.
This realistic movement is there for all the animals, and it is in motion that the animals are truly at their best. Not only that, but the animals interact with each other and real objects in a realistic way. For example, Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) slithers realistically along a tree straining under her weight, and when the various fights happen, there is real impact to their movements.
You can really tell they focused on the finer details to shed the dreaded “uncanny valley” effect with the animals on screen. They move and behave like you would expect real animals to, so this coupled with the excellent effects mean they look amazing. Not only that, you also have the subtle touches like Shere Khan leaving paw prints in the sand, and other effects to make these animals seem more real.
Now that’s not to say the CGI is perfect. The animals don’t look as good standing still as they do in motion, and you can feel the uncanny valley a little here, but it’s not enough to be bothersome. Once you get absorbed into the film, you won’t notice it at all.
Let’s move onto the story. The story will feel both familiar and new to anyone who saw the 1967 classic. The film begins with Mowgli living happily with a pack of wolves, until a drought comes and Shere Khan warns everyone that once the drought is over, he wants Mowgli gone. So all the animals work to get him out of the way of Shere Khan’s clutches.
As you may or may not know, Walt Disney famously told the animators of the original Jungle Book not to read the Rudyard Kipling book on which the film was based, so the classic we all know and love actually differs from the source material.
Jon Favreau wasn’t shy about, that, though. He sticks closer to the book, and even lifts some of the dialogue and poetry direct from it. That’s not to say he doesn’t bring his own touch, however, but the two combine to make Jungle Book stand on its own as a film, rather than as just a remake.
Overall, the film has a darker tone than that of the original. It is definitely more adult than the original animated Disney classic, while still remaining appropriate for PG aged children. There are some pretty violent moments in the film, including some bloody face offs between Shere Khan and Bagheera.
So the film is aware that a lot of the people watching this will be adults (in fact, the showing I went to was 100% adults), with some kids probably being taken by their parents. But those two aspects work together… mostly.
The main parts where this falls down are actually the inclusion of some of the classic songs. Now here I am a bit conflicted, because including those songs pushed my nostalgia buttons in all the right places, but at the same time, these songs do feel a little out of place in this darker Jungle Book. Baloo and Mowgli’s Bare Necessities works okay, but the real sore thumb is the re-written “I Wanna Be Like you” from King Louie, played by Christopher Walken.
It doesn’t really fit that scene, and while I enjoyed that nod to the original, I did feel it a little out of place. Overall, though, the darker tone works fantastically and I enjoyed this film as an adult and would happily recommend it to anyone with kids who can handle the darker tone.
Lastly I want to touch on the voice acting and performances, as this is also critical to the film’s success or failure. I’m happy to report that all of the major voices fit pretty damn well with these beloved characters. Idris Elba as Shere Khan is particularly fantastic, and gives the role the right mix of intelligence and powerful presence that you would expect.
Special mentions also go to Bill Murray as Baloo, who gives a nice touch of comedic relief after some pretty dramatic sequences, giving a nice break to the audience while also fleshing out the character of Mowgli some more. Ben Kingsley is also great as Bagheera, and fully gives the panther the vibe of a stuffy by-the-books father figure.
What about Mowgli? I hear you ask. Neel Sethi also fills the role well, and his version of Mowgli as a kind of amateur jungle engineer fits in well with the more adult feel to this film. Thankfully, Mowgli is played by an actor who knows how to make him sympathetic and interesting, and also makes you care about his growth.
All in all, The Jungle Book both celebrates and recreates the original classic into something new, something bristling with life and creativity. While the film does give nods to the original animation, it is also not afraid to be darker, more violent and to be its own self.
While I don’t think a remake like this can ever really escape the shadow of its predecessor, The Jungle Book manages to come into the light a fair bit as a great film in its own right, and in some ways tells parts of the story better.