Walt Disney Studios’ efforts in recent years to remake their classic animated tales in a live-action format have been nothing if not interesting. 2014’s “Maleficent” warped one of Disney’s most popular and feared villains beyond recognition, while 2015’s “Cinderella” was pleasant but predictable. With “The Jungle Book,” however, the studio has struck just right balance between its 1967 animated version of the film and the Rudyard Kipling source material. It also balances live-action characters with animated ones, resulting in a gorgeous film that truly breaks new ground.
Directed by Jon Favreau, “The Jungle Book” tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young boy who is raised by the wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) after he is found alone in the jungle by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Mowgli tries his best to live like the wolves do, but his constant tricks (like using a rope and pail to fetch water as opposed to drinking straight from the watering hole as the animals do) set him apart. Overall, however, life is fine until the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) shows up. Shere Khan, whose face is scarred from an encounter with men many years ago, wants Mowgli dead. Bagheera begins to escort Mowgli to the man village, where he really belongs, but they become separated, leading Mowgli to meet a new series of characters, including the hungry snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the ancient orangutan King Louie (Christopher Walken), and the carefree bear Baloo (Bill Murray).
This adaptation of “The Jungle Book” is not merely a remake of Disney’s animated version, nor is it a straightforward adaptation of Kipling’s stories. Rather, it draws material and inspiration from both, resulting in a film that is classic Disney storytelling at its finest. The movie’s tone ranges from upbeat and fun to dark and violent, but the transition between those aspects of the story is rarely jarring, and they are unified by the story’s overall reverence for nature that is evident throughout; for instance, when the wolves recite the Law of the Jungle, or when Bagheera explains to Mowgli why they must bow when the elephants, who created the jungle as they know it, pass by. There are some interesting turns the story does take, however, particularly in regards to its ending, which is drastically different from the 1967 film and is less effective in terms of showing the evolution of Mowgli as a boy learning to be a man.
The film’s voice cast is stellar; besides those already mentioned, we also get Giancarlo Esposito as the wolf pack leader Akela, and the late Garry Shandling as the comical porcupine Ikki. Nyong’o brings so much warmth and emotion to her role as the only mother Mowgli has ever known, who loves him as one of her one. Kingsley’s Bagheera is the perfect narrator for the story, while also serving as Mowgli’s wise protector. It’s difficult to top George Sanders, who voiced Shere Khan in the 1967 movie, but Elba is so powerful and so calmly menacing in the role, he makes this Shere Khan the most terrifying Disney villain since Scar in “The Lion King” (in fact, the two characters do have several traits in common). Murray’s Baloo is more of a con artist type than the original character, and it does at times feel more like he’s playing the typical Bill Murray character than playing Baloo. Still, he brings a lot to the role, and he has strong chemistry with impressive newcomer Sethi, who imbues Mowgli with an abundance of spunk and courage. The most drastically different character is Kaa. In the 1967 film, Kaa is voiced by Sterling Holloway, and his attempts to hypnotize Mowgli always end comically; he’s never truly threatening. This Kaa is a female (voiced, as mentioned before, by Scarlett Johansson), and she is menacing, her attempts to place Mowgli in a trance laced with sensuality. It’s an interesting direction in which to take the character, who only appears in one scene, but it fits with the overall more serious tone of the story.
Then we have King Louie, who is played by Christopher Walken. Walken lends the character a sort of mob boss feel that is appropriate until he—wait for it—bursts into song. That song would be “I Wan’na Be Like You,” one of two songs from the 1967 film that are performed in this movie, the other being “The Bare Necessities,” which is a duet between Mowgli and Baloo (Johansson performs the song “Trust in Me” over the film’s end credits; we only hear a few strains of the music during the actual film). “The Bare Necessities” fits right in with Baloo’s laid-back lifestyle, and therefore feels appropriate to the tone of the movie; it’s the sort of thing that he would sing just to sing. While “I Wan’na Be Like You” is a fantastic song, it just doesn’t work in this movie, especially since leading up to it King Louis is established as a bit of a menacing character. Would he just randomly start singing? Not likely. Having a few chords of the tune play while the character was being introduced was appropriate; including the whole song was unnecessary.
But the thing that most people will be leaving the theater talking about is the visuals. Similar how “Avatar” was ground-breaking in terms of 3D and motion capture upon its release, “The Jungle Book” offers up the most realistic-looking computer animated characters to date. Each animal has a human-like expressiveness to them, while moving and otherwise behaving like their respective species do. The environments surrounding them are equally beautiful, from the colors to the lighting. The viewer gets a sense of every aspect of the vast jungle, from the darkness of the ruins King Louie hides in, to the beauty of Baloo’s home by the river, to barren landscape where the wolves reside. Be sure to stick around for the end credits too; the film takes the traditional “closing of the book” ending and turns it around, using those impressive visuals to its advantage.
The film does miss some opportunities to be less of an action-y type story and more of a thematic one, and it does suffer from uneven tones at times. But overall, in terms of storytelling, characters, and visuals, it is a great achievement in filmmaking. If Disney’s live-action adaptations of classic stories continues in this fashion, that would be a beautiful thing.
Runtime: 105 minutes. Rated PG for some sequences of scary action and peril. Available for viewing in 3D and IMAX 3D.
Check out showtimes for this movie and more at the following St. Louis-area theaters:
- Wehrenberg Theatres
- AMC Theatres
- Regal Movie Theatres
- Galleria 6
- Chase Park Plaza
- Moolah Theatre
- Hi-Pointe Theatre
- St. Andrews Cinema
- Plaza Frontenac Cinema
- Tivoli Theatre