Disney Nature meets beloved animated classic! Disney’s newest live-action remake of an animated classic surprisingly plays out very well. Unlike last year’s Cinderella, The Jungle Book strikes a perfect balance between creating a new more visceral experience of a familiar story and paying homage to the best of what the animated version had to offer–the essence of what made it “Disney.” As I was sitting in the theatre, I was amazed at how much the film truly felt like a classic Disney masterpiece that just happened to include beautiful cinematography, incredibly well engineered CG animals, and a plot; albeit, not a dynamic, thrilling, or deep plot, but a coherent plot nevertheless. That’s more than I can say about the original. Even though, I too like the classic. After the Cinderella cinematic schlock, I was not expecting much out of this film. But, I stand (or sit, rather) corrected. The Jungle Book is encouraging in that it proved to me that Disney can still tell a good story that is great for a wide audience and includes the core of the magic of an animated classic but successfully translates the narrative into a live-action movie.
Deep in the Indian jungles, an orphan human infant is found by a wise and caring panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Knowing he would die alone, Bagheera took him to a pack of wolves to be raised as one of their own. Being given the name Mowgli (Neel Sethi) spend his childhood as a wolf. When Shere Kahn (Idris Elba), a vengeful bengal tiger, threatens the wolf pack and the rest of the jungle, Mowgli decides to leave the pack and head for the man village–the jungle is no longer a place for a man cub. Guided and guarded by Bagheera, Mowgli must begin to adapt to his soon to be new life, but is having the most difficult of time. Throughout his journey through the misty jungles, Mowgli will encounter animals and beats he has never seen and even make some new friends along the way, including the lovable Baloo (Bill Murray). All the while, he must avoid an encounter with Shere Kahn while pressing on his journey of self-discovery and wild adventure.
Writer Justin Marks and director Jon Favreau demonstrate that a live-action remake of an animated Disney classic can be the best that a modern cinematic general audience movie can be and still hold onto the magic that has made it a story to stand the test of time. As I have not read the Rudyard Kipling work of literature upon which The Jungle Book is based, I’d like to imagine that this version of Mowgli, Bagheera, and Baloo’s adventures does the words of the English journalist and author justice. Unlike the original beloved movie devoid of any real coherent or conventionally structured plot, this remake tells a visual story supported by a simple but effective narrative complete with proper turning points, twists, and events. The pacing is also well-engineered, which creates a pleasant journey for the mind as well as the eyes. Using mostly on location jungle shots, supported with subtle sound stage sets gives this film a natural beauty that feels like something right out of a Disney Nature documentary. Contrary to how some CG animals can look, these creations were fantastically real–like you could reach out and stroke Bagheera’s ebony hair. Newcomer Neel Sethi is impressive to watch as Mowgli. He embodied the lovable characteristics of the animated version whilst adding in a modern twist. One of my favorite ways to evaluate an actor, in a genre such as this, is if he or she looks like they are having fun. And, Sethi definitely showed that he was having fun bringing this story to live-action cinema.
One of the reasons I was disappointed with the remake of Cinderella is that I missed the magic of the timeless music. Realizing that this was the first attempt to remake an animated classic (not a reimagination as is the case with Maleficent), it is entirely possible that Disney decided to make sure the next remake included the core of what made the animated version so beloved. And you will definitely find echoes of the original Jungle Book in this live action film. Most of the characters you remember from the original are also reprising their respective roles. Some of the roles are modified to either be more or less prominent, but it’s all very effective in building the story. One of the characters that is not as prominent in this version is the bola constrictor Kaa (Scarlet Johansson). But, in the relatively short amount of screen time, she delivers an exceptional performance, inclusive of the hypnotism, and through her interaction with Mowgli, Kaa reveals his backstory that adds to why Shere Kahn has vowed vengeance on his life. Just like in the original, King Luis (Christopher Walken) want to be just like Mowgli and possess the red flower.
There are certain elements of the original that are not included in the live-action version, but they are elements that did not fit in the world Favreau created for this film. Suffice it to say, I do not think that you will greatly miss those parts of the original because this Jungle Book holds onto the original magic and brings it into 21st century cinema. What about the talking animals??? Like with many movies, I did not read up on this one too much because I wanted to be surprised. Needless to say, I did not look up the voice actors so I was not prepared for the animals to speak. When Bagheera first began to speak, I was definitely caught off guard. However, I quickly accepted that the articulating mouths on the animals speaking perfectly good English in the jungles of India were as natural as the luscious green trees and crystal clear water or as natural as Mowgli’s ability to communicate with nearly every creature. The UN must have implanted Mowgli and his friends with those instant translator devices. But, because of the quality of the production, the adherence to the Disney magic that made the original memorable, and the solid writing, I was more than willing to engage in the suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy the movie to its fullest extent.
If you enjoyed the music, characters, and story in the original, then you are definitely going to enjoy this live-action remake. I am excited to see that the essence of the original animated classic is alive and well in this film. I hope this is what we are to expect from the next live-action adaptation of a Disney animated classic.