“The Jungle Book” is the latest in Disney’s new trend of remaking their old classics into CGI-based live action films. Despite this being the “live action” version, let’s be honest here. This movie is as much a cartoon as the one from 1967.
Look at the facts. It’s shot in a studio in California, not in any real jungle. This means the backgrounds are all entirely animated. The talking animals are all obviously animated, since CGI is far easier than puppetry or, god forbid, trying to use real animals. The only thing in this movie that’s real is Mowgli, which is just a little amusing seeing as how he’s the worst actor in it. There’s no nice way of saying it, but Neel Sethi is a bad actor.
By being a remake it invites comparison to the original; there are references aplenty to remind the audience of that movie, so they even welcome the idea that you think of the old one while watching this. It goes beyond simple lines of dialogue and visual set pieces; they even do a couple of the classic musical numbers and this movie isn’t even a musical. In both instances, being “The Bear Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You”, they come across as awkward and clumsily. They lose far more than just the loveable voices of Phil Harris and Louis Prima. Here they seem more like obligations than they do a natural progression in their respective scenes.
For instance, when the music kicked in while King Louie (here voiced by Christopher Walken) was talking, I honestly had no idea what he was about to do. I recognized the melody building, but then remembered that this isn’t a musical, so I didn’t really expect him to start singing. Was he going to sing talk the lyrics? It wasn’t that bad, but he does sing the song anyway and big surprise, it’s kinda weird. Not to mention he’s more like “Mighty Joe Young” than an orangutan, but that’s neither here nor there.
Where this new Jungle Book does stand a little apart from the original is in the more serious tone and obviously, the choice to animate the animals as realistically as possible. There’s never any mistaking them for real animals, but they look convincing as characters and had Mowgli been animated too, this might have been a more interesting attempt at a darker Disney cartoon. The very real danger of Shere Khan drives the story forward and keeps him a constant threat hanging over Mowgli’s head. There’s also a greater emphasis on his wolf family and the jungle laws, all giving the story a slightly different flavor. Better to be different than reminiscent of something else.
The cast is made up of big names to voice the characters, from Bill Murray as Baloo the bear, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Scarlett Johansson has one kind of pointless scene as Kaa the snake, and most convincingly is Idris Elba as Shere Khan the tiger, perhaps more intimidating and threatening than he’s ever been. For the most part the voices suit the animations, though Scarlett Johansson seemed a bit disconnected from hers.
The animation is consistently strong throughout, especially in some of the bigger set pieces, like King Louie’s ruined castle. Everything looks nice and polished, only clashing occasionally with actual person Mowgli, but never in a distracting way. For the most part, he looks like he’s actually part of the scenery.
The score and the two musical numbers reference the old movie in an attempt to invoke feelings of nostalgia. It no doubt works (I myself couldn’t help but smile hearing bits of the old George Bruns score at the film’s opening), but this can be a double-edged sword however, as inviting comparisons to the original only makes one yearn for that old movie. When stacked against the classic cartoon, this one lacks the humor, the fun, the music, and the charm that once came so easily. All that said, “The Jungle Book” remains enjoyable enough on its own merits. Perhaps it could have put a bit more faith in them.