It’s no secret that Disney’s recent trend of remaking some of its classic animated films into more mature, live-action editions has yielded, at best, mixed results. From the disastrous Maleficent to the passable, but still underwhelming Cinderella, this critic found himself wishing, more than once, that the studio would just leave “well enough” alone and let their legendary franchises stand untarnished. After all, there’s no reason to drag strong licenses through the mud just for the sake of a quick nostalgic cash-in.
That being said, I recently found myself quite thankful that I am not in any way involved with the production teams at Disney because, whatever fears I had in the past, Disney has finally hit the mark with its most recent foray The Jungle Book.
Directed by Jon Favreau (Elf, Iron Man), The Jungle Book is an extensive remake of the classic Disney animated film of the same name, inspired by the works of Rudyard Kipling. As the original film has established itself as a media icon of sorts, the task of remaking it seems quite a challenge. Stray too far from the source and one risks alienating longtime fans; stay too close, however, and one raises the question of why a remake is necessary at all. It’s a delicate balance, made all the more complex by our modern market’s nigh-unquenchable thirst for darker, more mature cinematic themes. That being said, it gives me no small pleasure to report that the film strikes that balance perfectly.
The film focuses on the adventures of a human boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi), who has spent his life living among the jungle’s animals. Entrusted to the care of a pack of wolves by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), the boy lives among the pack as best he can. Due to his occasional slips into human-like practices, he sometimes finds himself at odds with the animals.
His peaceful life is not to last, however, as the mighty tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) issues an ultimatum: One day, he vows, he will slaughter Mowgli and anyone who attempts to stop him. Fearing for the lives with his family and friends, Mowgli decides to leave the jungle with Bagheera, attempting to seek refuge with his own kind. The jungle, however, is not so easily cast aside and soon Mowgli finds himself embroiled in a number of adventures that lie within.
At its core, the film really does come across as just a simple retelling of its source material. And, in truth, it is. As far as its overall plot is concerned, The Jungle Book’s plot is the same fundamental story as it has been for decades. There are no Maleficent-style modifications to be found.
In fact, in certain places, the film relies so heavily on the source material that it is actually a bit jarring and cumbersome. For example, there are two musical callbacks to the original film with, while heavy on nostalgia, don’t quite feel right in this version.
That’s not to say the film is redundant. In fact, many of the small details that are added throughout the story will be quite welcome to returning fans. However, for those looking for something fresh and new out of this retelling, the story is not where you’ll find it.
Where the film is able to absolutely shine, however, is in its world-building and acting. The setting of The Jungle Book is one of the most gorgeously rendered worlds in recent memory, at once vast and wondrous. It is also mysterious and even frightening at times.
There is also a constant sense of foreboding in the atmosphere. Even as Mowgli reflects on his love of the jungle and his desire to stay, the film never fails to remind us of the number of hazards and dangers lurking behind every tree.
Yet even amid the danger, there’s room for thrills, excitement and fun with a cast of characters as lovable as they ever were. Idris Elba’s performance as Shere Khan is deliciously sinister in all the right ways. The malicious drawls and snarls in his voice blend seamlessly with the beast’s prowl, making for a villain audiences will love to dread.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Bill Murray as the voice of the iconic bear Baloo is something I never knew I wanted to see, but find myself all the richer for having witnessed. And finally, the ever-lovable, ever-quirky Christopher Walken has a role in this film that I absolutely refuse to spoil. Suffice to say, it may be the best role that he has had in years.
While definitely not anything revolutionary, The Jungle Book does exactly what it is supposed to: It recreates the world and charm of its source while simultaneously injecting just enough freshness to keep it from getting stale.
I can safely say that The Jungle Book is, if nothing else, a very fun film to see and well worth the attention of not just children or nostalgic fans but anyone looking for a fun afternoon adventure. Truly, in a time of remakes, rehashes and reimaginings, it’s refreshing to see a film offer so much more than the simple bare necessities.
Overall Rating: 8/10