Disney’s current trend of making live-action remakes of their most successful and enduring animated films has always felt a bit pointless to me, and the quality of those remakes has not changed my mind. Alice in Wonderland was a bizarre mess, Maleficent was an interesting concept bungled in execution, and Cinderella was so safe that its strange moments didn’t even leave a lasting impression. So, as you can imagine, I wasn’t exactly pumped for The Jungle Book. But here’s the thing: it’s pretty good, and actually on par with the original cartoon, believe it or not.
The basic premise hasn’t really changed since Rudyard Kipling’s original short story compilation or the 1967 animated feature of the same name. Mowgli is a human child raised by wolves who must flee the jungle when the tiger Shere Kahn, fearful of what Mowgli could do to him as a grown man, threatens his life. So begins a series of vignettes where Mowgli encounters a hypnotic snake, a lazy but loveable bear, and an orangutan king bent of possessing the secret of fire, among others. And for the film’s first act, I wasn’t terribly impressed, mostly due to Mowgli’s passive role in the narrative at that point and child actor Neel Sethi’s inability to infuse much life into the character. The kid has physical acting and acrobatic chops, but his line reading is atrocious, likely due to the fact that he is the only human actor on screen at any time.
But eventually, the film started to win me over, primarily due to its fantastic voice cast. Idris Elba makes a calmly ominous Shere Kahn imposing yet rarely needs to elevate his voice, and Christopher Walken as King Louie is surprisingly unsettling, a vast departure from the animated film that not only mutes the racially problematic aspects of the character but makes for one of the most tense scenes of the film. I could go on about how the other supporting roles are delivered excellently with their own unique twists, but the real showstealer, though, is Bill Murray as Baloo, who encapsulates the lazy and manipulative side of the character while delivering the best comedic lines of the film. All of these performances are made perfect by some of the most striking computer generated animation put to film, somehow walking a line between photorealism and anthropomorphic emotion that almost never dips into the uncanny valley.
Where the film falters is in its (likely producer-mandated) need to adhere to the nostalgia template of the original cartoon in certain instances. Doing more to make Mowgli an active character in early scenes would have made him instantly more relatable, yet the play by play movement through famous setpieces (the confrontation between Shere Kahn and the wolves, Mowgli’s capture by Kaa, etc.) takes precedent over storytelling, at least until Baloo steals the show and Mowgli’s relationship with the bear gives him some definition. Furthermore, the musical pieces are a mixed bag; where Baloo’s lackadaisical rendition of “The Bare Necessities” feels perfect, the high energy swing of “I Wanna Be Like You” feels tonally discordant coming out of the larger, more threatening King Louie’s stern mouth.
That said, The Jungle Book is immensely entertaining, a testament to director John Favreau’s immortal place in the age of CGI. The action scenes are memorable and exciting, the voice cast is impeccable, and the more distasteful aspects of the film are minor in light of how much it simply does right. This is the live action adaptation that should set the template for Disney moving forward. Let’s hope they get the message.