Disney’s live-action do-overs of their animated classics has proved an enjoyable experiment, with bigger scale and some fun twists sprinkling enough creativity over the projects to ensure they aren’t purely an exercise in nostalgia. But entertaining as they are, they never quite have that spark that made the cartoons we grew up on so memorable. The Jungle Book, Disney’s latest reimagining, does fall victim to many of the same issues that plagued its forbears, but there’s also a magic here that I never quite felt with the studio’s other trips down memory lane, and it had me leave the cinema positively glowing. Maybe I’m just a sucker for talking animals, but this is the first of all their remakes I’d wholeheartedly recommend.
This iteration of The Jungle Book is largely content sticking to the story of Disney’s 1967 cartoon, and doesn’t feel compelled to mine much more from Rudyard Kipling’s source material. The Jon Favreau-directed adventure follows Mowgli (played by newcomer Neel Sethi, the only human member of the core cast), a young orphan rescued by a panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and raised by a pack of wolves. When drought strikes the jungle and a truce is called amongst the animals, he gains the unwanted attention of the much-feared Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a tiger with a distaste for humans, who promises blood when the temporary peacetime is over. Fearing what will happen to his pack should they protect him, Mowgli sets out with the help of Bagheera and bear named Baloo (Bill Murray) on a journey through the jungle to flee Shere Khan and find safety with his own estranged kind.
What impresses most about The Jungle Book is the balance of epic journey and Disney whimsy. Favreau, who has found plenty of success in both summer super-heroics (Iron Man) and intimate indie outings (Chef), proves the perfect director to juggle tone and give this CGI world a human heart. There’s no question you are looking at a computer-generated cast (which I fear may make this film feel quite dated down the track), but the visuals remain nonetheless gorgeous, with the animals dancing a fine line between welcoming toons and photo-realistic depictions.
While it caters more for the younger demographic in its audience than classic Disney (evidenced by a lot of early exposition and a little less wit in the script than you’d expect), The Jungle Book promises to keep everyone entertained with its fast and fluid plot and a memorable animal cast you’ll be only to eager to meet. As fascinating as the interactions and politics between animal species are, there is a drive to see some exhilarating action and inter- species tussling, which I’m happy to say doesn’t go unabated. Admittedly, it’s probably a little less than I’d have liked, but what you do get is quite satisfying (particularly in the big showdown with Shere Khan) it probably about fits for a what we expect in a Disney movie.
A little less successful are the film’s sparse musical segments, which seem primarily included as a throwback to the cartoon, but actually end up doing a pretty good job assisting with the aforementioned tonal juggling (especially with the melodic callbacks to “The Bear Necessities” in the score). The problem is these segments (of which there is only two in the film, with a third snuck into the credits) feel surprisingly restrained and skate on the hit of nostalgic joy they come pre-packaged with rather than try to do anything interesting themselves. Perhaps Favreau felt, given there are only two such segments, and within a live-action sandbox, it was asking too much of the audience to go full musical. But if your characters are about to unexpectedly break out in song, you better have some visual flair to back it up. Have we learned nothing from Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables?
While the various animal creations are visually impressive, they are often a little lacking in emotional expression, which would have proved a huge problem were it not for the great voice acting put in by the film’s cast. Elba makes for an excellent villain, authoritative and malevolent with a voice that chills his fellow fauna and instantly establishes him as the most lethal creature in the jungle. Inversely, Kingsley is a calming presence as Mowgli’s protector, a stoic and sensible voice in the film’s chaotic ecosystem. Scarlett Johansson proves great casting for the giant python Kaa, but the character is tragically underused, disappointingly little more than a cameo with privileged plot information she needs to share (a fact the studio seemed to recognize given the attention she gets in the credits).
Of all the animals, it’s Christopher Walken’s larger-than-life orangutan gangster King Louie (that’s easily the most satisfying string of nine words I’ve ever typed) that left the biggest impression, despite his limited role in the story. Surprising, because it’s Bill Murray’s Baloo who I expected would have this honor, but who ended up being a bit of a mixed bag. He’s totally fine as a lazy and deceitful oaf, but Murray seems removed whenever a bit more finesse or emotion is required. It would also have been nice to see a little more humor from the character given the casting, but alas.
As for our human star…well, I’m not entirely sure how I feel yet. On the one hand Sethi is enthusiastic and full of heart, and I quite enjoy the idea of Mowgli’s arc (his embracing of his human traits and making that fit into his wild ecosystem), but I just never managed to engage with him. Yes, he’s a child actor, and an unexperienced one at that, so of course the top-notch voice-work of the supporting cast overshadows his performance a little. But he really does give it his all and I truly believe it’s the script that holds him back. He’s just too ‘vanilla’ a protagonist, never really given the chance to stand out or be anything other than reactive. Even in the big showdown, where Mowgli battles Shere Khan with wits and spirit to overcome his raw power, it’s provoked by Kahn’s machinations and not a defiant move by our hero. To be clear though, this doesn’t detract in the slightest from the thrilling and visually spectacular final act.
So yes, there are a few flaws here, but they are really more about missed opportunities than actual problems with the movie. Noticeable (and perhaps expected) as its shortcomings may be, they just can’t detract from the warmth and energy that this movie is overflowing in. The Jungle Book is a big pot of rich, comforting and sometimes sickly-sweet honey, a treat mostly for the kids, but one parents will surprise themselves by enjoying as well.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10