For some reason, Disney does quite well in adapting Rudyard Kipling’s immortal stories of a young boy raised in the Indian jungle and his various animal friends and foes. This live-action version (for lack of a better term, as much of it is CGI) leans heavier on the Kipling source than the swinging 60s animated film, and it’s all the better for it. Many scenes are directly from the stories, bits of dialog and poetry including the jungle law and wolf pack song are faithfully transplanted, and a few characters are restored to their literary source.
The Jungle Book only goes weird when it diverts back to the 1967 for material, or in a few adaptation choices and instances of animation driving us straight into the Uncanny Valley, but it is an otherwise smart, solid, and wildly entertaining piece of movie-making. Praise be to some cinematic entity for this, as Disney’s penchant for live-action re-dressings of its beloved animated properties have been a decidedly mixed bag, leaning far heavier on messy misfires than success since Tim Burton’s hollow-but-entertaining re-spin of Alice in Wonderland hit a billion-plus dollars at the box office in 2010.
Director Jon Favreau assembled a murder’s row of movie-star vocal talent for these iconic roles. High marks go towards Lupita Nyong’o as the protective maternal wolf Raksha, Bill Murray’s laconic and insouciant Baloo, Christopher Walken giving King Louie his bizarre inflections, Ben Kingsley lending Bagheera the intelligence and gravitas he requires, and Idris Elba making Shere Khan a ferocious and deliciously menacing villain.
The only major vocal talent that felt at odds with the character was Scarlett Johansson’s gender-swapped Kaa, reduced once more to a villainous character and a one-scene wonder that’s more exposition dump than anything. The scene starts off well, building up a real scene of dread and impending doom, before crumbling under the weight of Kaa explaining the already obvious connection between Mowgli and Shere Khan. I wish the film-makers had restored Kaa’s rightful place in the story as one of Mowgli’s strongest, oldest allies and a major presence in rescuing him from the monkeys instead of repeating the 1967 film’s choices.
A similar thing happened to me with the continuation of Baloo as a lovable slacker instead of one of Mowgli’s wisest allies, and an honorary member of the wolf pack. I understand that within the Disney canon, this version of Baloo is highly iconic, but with Bagheera, Shere Khan, Akela, Raksha, and the elephants operating much as they do in the source material there’s a certain imbalance that happened for me in keeping him the same. I’m sure other audience members could easily forgive this, and it didn’t hold back my enjoyment in any meaningful way, but it’s more of a creative choice that I think could have been done differently.
In contrast I found keeping King Louie a non-issue, and enjoyed that they changed him from an orangutan, which is not native to India, into a gigantic prehistoric ape that was, specifically a Gigantopithecus. Walken’s off-kilter performance of “I Wan’na Be Like You” is a blast of pure oddity, and makes for a very fun and lively credits sequence when its reprised in full at the end. A scene where he chases Mowgli through a crumbling palace is the one most fraught with tension and thrills, and Louie’s animation is breath taking in these moments looking startlingly realistic.
Honestly, there’s not much to complain about with The Jungle Book aside from minor squabbles. If the worst I can say about it is that the CG-heavy scenery and animals occasionally look like expertly rendered video game cut scenes then it’s already ahead of most major blockbusters in producing effects that aren’t rubbery looking. At times the absolute refusal to look like reality but an imagined jungle of a fairy tale only enhances the mythic qualities of the story.
And I haven’t even begun to discuss Neel Sethi, the newcomer who headlines this movie with charm, heart, grace, and enormous pluck. Hopefully, Hollywood will find future vehicles for his demonstrable gifts and charisma. Sethi is a real find, and I hope to watch his career blossom in the ensuing years as so much of The Jungle Book succeeds or fails upon his believable interactions with creatures and environments that weren’t there during production.
If Disney can keep the momentum and lessons learned from this highly successful and pleasing re-do of their animated features in future releases, maybe I won’t dread watching Dumbo, Pinocchio, Cruella, Night on Bald Mountain, and whatever else they’ve got planned try to find some of the original magic of those films. The Jungle Book is a resounding success, but is it a sign of things to come or just a one-off wonder of right creative team meeting the right material? Only time will tell, and Disney has no plans of stopping the self-immolation any time soon.