Live-action and computer animation blend to make a vibrant Jungle Book
1967’s The Jungle Book has long been one of my favorite Disney films, second only to Sleeping Beauty for lack of a fire-breathing dragon. What it lacks in evil green fire, it more than makes up for with a particular style of music and animation that is often ignored in favor of either earlier classics like Snow White or the grand epics of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.
Films like The Jungle Book and Robin Hood shared much of the same animation and voice actors, and while some might see this as conservative laziness on the part of the studio, I’ve always found it charming in its simplicity. Of course, some of this comes from seeing these films during my formative years, but I still believe that the Louie Prima style jazz of “I Wanna Be Like You” are as quintessential to the Disney legacy as “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
At the same time, I can understand the studio’s desire to remake the film, as the original does suffer from a certain thinness in plot and Rudyard Kipling’s world is ripe for expansion (not that either version is especially faithful to the source material). The new film is thrilling in places, but the Fugitive style pace may be a little too much for the youngest audiences. Still, there are moments in the film that are absolutely stunning and the film is worth seeing for the visuals alone.
It’s important to remember that 2016’s The Jungle Book is no less animated than the 1967 original. The animations are extensive and exquisitely detailed photorealistic renderings of the animals and jungles of India. Just like traditional Disney animation, this world was created by highly talented and passionate artists. The tools of the art might have changed, but this film is a testament to just how far technology has come in 50 years.
This film follows the same story as the original, with only a few key changes. Mogwli (Neel Sethi) is still a man-cub, left alone in the jungle and found by Bagheera, a wise black panther voiced by Ben Kingsley. Mowgli has been raised by wolves and taught their ways by his mother Rashka (Lupita Nyong’o) and pack leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito).
At a time of peace between the animals of the jungle, the deadly tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) makes an ultimatum—turn the man cub over to him or the wolves will suffer. As a result, Mowgli leaves to find the man village and return to his people. He must overcome the challenges of the jungle and his fear of Shere Khan to survive.
Among the changes to the original film are a noticeable lack of songs and slight modifications to the characters to make them more ecologically accurate. The animals we see in the film could all be found at one time or another in the Indian jungles—Baloo is a sloth bear, the elephants are distinctly the Indian variety, Shere Khan is a Bengal Tiger, etc.
King Louie (Christopher Walken) is no longer an orangutan, instead replaced with a Gigantopithecus blacki, an extinct species thought to be the largest great ape that ever lived. The scenes with Louie in particular are exceptionally well done, exciting sequences that absolutely make the movie.
As the film focuses as much as it can on realism, the overt musical scenes were understandably left out, save for the most popular songs like “The Bear Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You.” The performances here are adequate, but Christopher Walken is not Louie Prima and his particular song seems at least a little out of place given what came before.
The voice acting in the film is very well done (although I would have loved Shere Khan to have Elba’s Baltimore, Stringer Bell accent, which is why no one lets me make movies) and Neel Sethi gives a wonderful performance considering he was working almost entirely with green screen actors. It would be a challenging role for an adult and Sethi owns the part as if it was created for him alone.
Both versions of the The Jungle Book are wonderful children’s films. The success of the remake is no small feat considering how little Hollywood studios tend to think of children. The moronic trailers before the film highlight the narrow attitudes of studio executives towards kids, which leads to even more films about people turning into pets and the wacky hijinks that ensue. Jon Favreau clearly respects the original film and believes his audience to be moderately intelligent.
Whether the success of The Jungle Book leads to more remakes remains to be seen. If it does, let’s hope the quality stays high.