Adapting children’s literature with a large cast of anthropomorphic animals rife with song and dance numbers and sterilizing the dark moments are traits of Disney’s classic catalog of animated features from Snow White to Pocohantas.
But this is a new Disney now and when they’re not off servicing the latest Star Wars or Marvel Cinematic Universe films, or getting all of the hands on deck for the next Pixar film, they’ve looked to repeatedly re-invent the wheel in their live-action spins of their cartoon mainstays.
This began with Alice in Wonderland, then Maleficent and most recently Cinderella. I must admit, I’m mixed at this approach because the last thing we need is another attempt to recycle the old material, and just because the older movies are collecting dust doesn’t make them bad films, just forgotten.
I’d sooner support an original film like Zootopia than retro-fit a story that was already perfect into today’s flashy and expensive filmmaking, especially if the effort solely is to satisfy today’s mouths of dead taste buds, fed a bland diet of substance and intelligence free storytelling. Yet I may bend that way of thinking for Disney’s latest live-action remake, The Jungle Book.
Rescued by a regal black panther named Bagheera (Ben Kinglsey), Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is turned over to a pack of wolves (led by Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o) who raise him as one of their own, as a fellow wolf, and wring out whatever instincts he may develop or discover from his DNA as a human.
But when an alpha Bengal Tiger (Idris Elba) with an axe to grind sniffs out Mowgli, the young boy is set off into the jungle to find his own species to draw away the danger he presents for the wolf pack. What Bagheera soon discovers is that the challenge in convincing Mowgli that he’d be better off with man than beast is a difficult one.
The live action magnifies the impending danger Shere Khan brings and also what an evil adversary the human species is against mother nature.
Be prepared to jump out of your seat in the theaters. This is one of the rare 3D experiences worth the extra bucks. The brain is disconnected from the perilous situation when the visuals look like they’re out of a flat coloring book.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the original Disney celluloid animation for the 1967 version did less to create a mood and put the viewer in the terror of the moment.
Here, the viewer can feel the weight and the proper scale of the animals as compared to Mowgli and his sibling wolf cubs. When Mowgli is captured by King Louie (Christopher Walken), the giant ape is a massive hurdle in the young boy’s way and that contrast is illustrated wonderfully in this version.
An inspired cast of voice talent breathes new life into the old story like Idris Elba as a truly terrifying Shere Khan, Kingsley as the protective panther Bagheera, and Scarlett Johansson as the slithering seductive snake, Kaa.
And as the only human we see on screen, Neel Sethi is enchanting in his own right, able to perform all of the quirks and enthusiasm of a young boy who is not only fighting his human urges, but also is trying to act like a young wolf.
The second half of The Jungle Book gets brighter with the introduction of Baloo, played by Bill Murray, and Walken’s Louie, which helps save a story that begins to drag up to that point.
Where the Jungle Book derails is the inclusion of the two musical songs. No one will ever top Phil Harris’s Baloo for me. His warmth and bellowing tones were like having that sweet crooner sound that would infiltrate many later Disney tales like Robin Hood and The Aristocats.
And despite Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans rendition of Bare Necessities, it will be Harris’s that I will savor as the definitive version. The same goes for Louis Prima’s I Wan’na Be Like You.
So while Murray and Sethi attempt to do a duet, the pain in your eardrums will make you wonder for those few minutes if a mistake was made.
Then when it comes to Walken’s number, well, your opinion of his turn in the live action Peter Pan musical might be an indication of whether or not you’ll like it. In both instances, the songs take you out of the film and I’d prefer if they were kept for the closing credits.
With the current bells and whistles of today’s filmmaking, The Jungle Book justifies the effort. The animals are impressive and recreate the jungle vividly for an immersive experience that will surely reach the heart of moviegoers young and old, but The Jungle Book has been adapted countless times.
This is the second live-action film; there are graphic novels, cartoons, and let’s not forget Rudyard Kipling’s original short stories.
In 2018 there will be yet another live-action version, directed by motion-capture master Andy Serkis.
I’m not certain how many more incarnations audiences can take – keep in mind, even with modern CG the story is still a basic one – but for now, Disney got the jump and is the first to impress.