I think it is safe to say that no major studio has been firing on all cylinders than Disney lately. With the creative and successful resurrection of Star Wars, the continuing dominance of the Marvel films, and the continued genius of Pixar, the Mouse House has somewhat quietly been rummaging around in the back of its celluloid closet to give their animated classics an up-to-date live action makeover. Last year, director Kenneth Branagh splashed a fresh coat of colorful paint onto the Disney Princess classic Cinderella (a huge assist can be given to Helena Bonham Carter’s enchanting Fairy Godmother and Cate Blanchett’s cruel, wicked stepmother). Last weekend, it was The Jungle Book’s turn in the live-action rotation; who would have guessed that it would turn into one of the biggest surprises of 2016.
The Jungle Book, based on books by Rudyard Kipling, stars the endearing 12-year-old Neel Sethi as Mowgli, the enthusiastic, chatty “man-cub” who was raised in the wild by a pack of wolves by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) after a fatherly black panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) found him as an abandoned toddler. Mowgli was nurtured according to the communal code of the wolfpack and lives in peaceful harmony with the other animals of the jungle until a vengeful tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba with his east London-accented menace), comes looking for him. It turns out that Khan’s scars are from burns from the “red flower” (the animals’ term for fire) once wielded by Mowgli’s father. He wants the boy handed over as tooth-for-a-tooth payback, otherwise the other jungle inhabitants will learn about the dark lesson in the circle of life.
In order to protect Mowgli, Bagherra decides to take him back to his people. Typically, things go awry along the way. Mowgli gets caught in the crushing embrace of a giant snake named Kaa (seductively voiced by Scarlett Johansson) before he falls in with a lazy, honey-loving, con-artist bear, Baloo (Bill Murray, delivering at his what-me-worry comic relief best), and then runs afoul of a tyrannical, Kong-sized ape named King Louie (Christopher Walken, channeling both Jabba the Hutt and Don Corleone). All of the voices are not just great – it’s perfect. The way that what’s coming out of their mouths syncs up with the way their mouths move. It’s the first animal talking movie where CGI seamlessly bridges the uncanny gap between fantasy and reality.
Directed by Jon Favreau, director of the first two Iron Man films, The Jungle Book is a tender and rollicking story that manages to lightly touch on some grown-up themes about man’s destructive power and the loss of youthful innocence but not losing sight that this film is first and foremost a kids adventure – though this is definitely one that might be too scary and intense for younger kids. Looking back, I’m not sure if I had a huge problem with the film but I did have a minor one – and I do mean a minor one – is that this film needed to just be too faithful to its animated original. The difference between this adaptation and Cinderella is that the musical numbers from the princess’s first animated did not make it into the live action remake. A pair of musical numbers (Baloo’s “Bear Necessities” and Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You”) came out of nowhere and stopped the momentum of the film. I had no problem with them but I feel like their were infused in for soundtrack purposes, especially for the fans of the original animated product. Overall, Favreau’s Jungle Book is a wall-to-wall pleasure and shot beautifully, solidifying his place as a bankable director.