Disney has recently been bringing some of their animated classics to life with live-action remakes, with Cinderella last year and Beauty and the Beast set for early 2017. The Jungle Book is the latest, though, releasing on April 15, 2016. This remake of the 1967 animated Disney feature manages to sufficiently update the look and feel of the film without obscuring the ideas put forth by the original.
The plot of the film hasn’t changed much from any other iteration of the story. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a young feral child, a “man-cub,” has been raised by a pack of wolves led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). During an extreme dry season, the “water truce” is enacted – meaning there’s no hunting, and all of the various species can come together at the Peace Rock to drink the little remaining water in safety.
Unfortunately, the man-hunting tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) also joins the crowd at Peace Rock, and notices the presence of the man-cub. As the burns on his face are evidence of the destructive power of men, he forbids Mowgli from living in the jungle, saying that when the water truce ends he will come for him, and forces the wolf pack to make a decision. Mowgli instead decides on his own to leave the pack and the jungle altogether, and the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) volunteers to escort him to the man village.
On their way, they’re ambushed by Shere Khan, who separates Mowgli from Bagheera but fails to kill the boy. Mowgli ends up deep in the jungle, where he meets the massive python, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson). Though Kaa shows Mowgli his past – that his father was the one who injured Shere Khan before falling to the tiger’s might, and that man’s “red flower” is a deadly force – she also attempts to devour him before being surprised by the sloth bear, Baloo (Bill Murray) and fleeing. Baloo and Mowgli quickly bond and the pair opt to stay in the jungle rather than have Mowgli go to his fellow men. Bagheera eventually finds the two and recommits to taking Mowgli to the man village.
However, Mowgli is abducted by a group of monkeys and taken to King Louie (Christopher Walken), a massive Gigantopithecus (instead of an orangutan like the original version) who has heard of the man-cub and wants to learn the secret behind the “red flower.” When he discovers that Mowgli doesn’t know how to create fire, he chases the boy through the temple; Mowgli narrowly escapes while the building collapses on top of Louie. However, Mowgli also learns that Akela has been killed by Shere Khan in an act of revenge and decides to return to the pack to put a stop to the tiger’s reign of terror. On the way back, he sneaks by the man village and grabs a torch, which he uses in the climactic battle against Shere Khan.
The Jungle Book’s greatest strength is the cast it got to voice the animal characters. There isn’t really a single standout among them, as they all excel in their roles. Established fan-favorite Baloo as voiced by Bill Murray continues the comedic tone of the character, while Idris Elba is at his most intimidating in the role of Shere Khan. Scarlett Johansson as Kaa – a character who has otherwise been male in other popular adaptations of the source material – takes on a more mysterious and seductive character than ever before. Christopher Walken also manages to be slightly terrifying as King Louie.
However, Neel Sethi as Mowgli is probably most impressive, as he’s really the lone live-action actor against a cast of computer-generated animals. His interactions with the rest of the cast is believable – important and impressive given how he was shot on a sound stage against a wall of green during the development of the film. The CG effects are also stellar; they somehow avoided the uncanny valley effect in regards to the animals and how they emote.
Many other reviews have criticized the use of music in the film itself. “Bare Necessities” is sung by Murray and Sethi, with “I Wanna Be Like You” performed by Walken during the film. Their inclusion has been questioned by many, who feel as though they don’t fit the tone of this updated Jungle Book adventure. I stand to disagree; both make sense within their scenes. King Louie’s song in particular takes on a very different tone – an aggressive, intimidating one – as the massive ape sings his terms to Mowgli. “Trust in Me” is sung by Johansson, but only appears in the credits. It’s worth sticking around for, as she does a wonderful job, and it would have been nice for them to include it in the film proper. As someone who grew up on Disney Sing-Along VHS tapes, I also couldn’t possibly imagine a Disney-produced Jungle Book without any of those songs.
For what it’s worth, I saw the film in IMAX 3D. While the effects were cool at times, I don’t know if it’s worth paying the extra money for the experience. The film looks great regardless.
Overall, The Jungle Book is a delightful experience from start to finish. It manages to capture the spirit of the original while also introducing a slightly more serious tone, though not overly so – this is still largely a children’s film, after all. Regardless of the viewer’s age, however, this is definitely one to put on the must-see list this spring.
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