The act of longstanding studios poaching their own catalogues and cannibalizing their own work has become a matter of course over the years. Remakes have become the norm rather than the exception, which demands new questions around the validity of such work. Does this new version serve a purpose or is it simply the result of a lack of ideas? Disney is the latest to adopt this cycle, adapting their animated classics into live-action features. However, it’s also been an interesting exercise of how to translate fantastic narratives from one medium into another as the hand-drawn world has far fewer restrictions than the tangible one. The Jungle Book presents a significant challenge in this area that also offers significant payoff.
When Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) the panther found the man-cub, Mowgli (Neel Sethi), alone in the jungle, he took him to Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and asked the wolf pack to raise him as one of their own. Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) agreed to mother him and her pups became his siblings. With no memory of his human family, Mowgli learned to live like the animals — though his natural resourcefulness, or “tricks,” are frowned upon by his furry guardians. However when the cold-hearted tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) threatens to destroy anyone caught protecting Mowgli, the boy has no choice but to abandon his family and return from whence he came. On the way to the man-village Mowgli encounters a variety of new characters, including the carefree bear Baloo (Bill Murray), the sneaky snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and the overwhelming ape King Louie (Christopher Walken).
The casting for this film is impeccable. The entire picture rests on Sethi’s young shoulders, which is a lot to ask of an actor starring in his first feature; especially when most of his co-stars are digitally produced animals. Nonetheless he appears to fit right into his jungle habitat, running and jumping through trees like it’s second nature. Sethi is very likeable as Mowgli, combining charm, innocence and ingenuity as he tries to find his place in his adoptive home. And although it’s a minor detail, it’s interesting to see the regular wear living in the wild has on his more vulnerable skin. Meanwhile, the voice cast perfectly represents their characters’ knowledge, cunning, charisma and cruelty respectively. Elba lends such power to Shere Khan’s presence, while Kingsley demonstrates a more quiet resolve; Nyong’o is so nurturing and protective, while Murray’s cheerfulness is contagious. Walken’s distinct voice can make it difficult to separate him from the character, but he is undoubtedly the best choice to convey Louie’s delusions of grandeur.
With the original animated film as the only point of reference, the amount of action in this version is somewhat surprising. There are a number of chases, both friendly and otherwise, that immerse the audience in the environment and the story, keeping them on the edge of their seats. There are also several brutal standoffs between characters as the big animals engage in National Geographic-style fights that are all claws and teeth. On the other hand, there are a lot of unavoidable, ultra-cute scenes that result from the creatures’ inherent adorableness. The light-hearted playful moments are skillfully juxtaposed with unexpectedly dark scenes featuring the tale’s villains. Director Jon Favreau does an excellent job balancing the animals’ natural instincts and their human traits, including two seamless musical numbers.
Finally, even though there’s no post-credit sequence, the images that play over the closing credits are as captivating as the main picture.