Though Disney’s live-action adaptations of their traditional animated stories have been a mixed bag so far, Jon Favreau and company have delivered a surprising gem in The Jungle Book. Like other adaptations, this film is certainly a re-make of the original and contains many of the same thematic elements, but some unique nuances add a great deal to the overall quality of the film. Though the movie is not without its faults, it is vastly superior to the animated version from 1967 in almost every way: it has a stronger sense of character development, a more coherent plot-theme, and even sports higher-quality animation. This is hands-down the best of Disney’s recent live-action adaptations.
Though, from a stylistic standpoint, classifying the film as “live-action” may be a bit of a stretch. The only live-action element of the film is the human character of Mowgli (Neel Sethi). His performance is solid as far as child actors go, but can’t compare to the voice-acting and gorgeous CGI. All of the animal characters and the environment are animated, and it is some of the most immersive, realistic world-building we’ve this side of Avatar. The animation of the animals is also pitch-perfect, and for the most part speeds right past any uncanny valley. A couple of the character models were slightly distracting to me, most notably the wolf puppies, but all the major characters look wonderful – even when they are talking.
The plot is essentially the same as the 1967 animated film, but adds a few interesting improvements. The villain, the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) is given much more weight and prominence in the narrative. Mowgli himself is more of a complete character and less of a plot device. Where the original Disney story simply explains that Mowgli needs to leave the jungle for his own safety, this updated version actually shows it – sometimes with surprising brutality. It feels like there are actual stakes in this version of the story, and that Mowgli has real choices to make and isn’t simply wandering from one setting to the next.
As previously mentioned, the voice talent that was assembled for this film is impeccable. Ben Kingsley is a great Bagheera, lending the panther the perfect mix of authority and compassion for the wayward Mowgli. Idris Elba’s Shere Khan is likewise excellent; intimidating but with a realistic emotional weight to his rage. On the other end of the spectrum, Bill Murray is great as Baloo, and actually manages to make the character something more than just a carefree sidekick. Sadly, Scarlett Johansson is wasted as Kaa, and could have been omitted from the story altogether (it really doesn’t add anything to the overall story). I also have my suspicions that her sequence was so lacking because they had a hard time figuring out how to include her song in the narrative. They didn’t have that issue with Christopher Walken’s awesome rendition of King Louie, for some reason.
This is one of the main weaknesses of the film. It is clear they didn’t know what to do with the musical aspect of the original. When you fully commit to the idea of making a musical, having characters break out in song is just fine (as we can see in the original). But, when you try to straddle the fence like they did in this version, it can feel a little awkward. There are only two songs included: “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You”; one works in the story, the other does not. “The Bear Necessities” is sung by Mowgli and Baloo in celebration of a recent success of theirs, and hence it just feels like two friends enjoying themselves. It is completely believable in the world of the film that Baloo may have known this song and taught it to Mowgli. King Louie’s song, however, follows the standards of a musical: he’s just singing what he’s thinking, and somehow that is supposed to be accepted at face value. In the world of the film, it is jarring – because The Jungle Book in this form is not a musical! I would guess that this is the exact reason that Kaa’s song was not included in the film (it is played over end credits – so it was recorded). Let’s be clear: King Louie’s song is excellent and Walken performs it to perfection, but its inclusion breaks the narrative in a fundamental way.
That being said, it is a minor gripe in an otherwise great film. Thematically, The Jungle Book has always been about belonging and family, with a bit of a coming-of-age aspect as well. But, there is also the concept of the power of human ingenuity. This was always present with the “Red Flower” / fire aspect of the original, but it is emphasized in this rendition of the story. One of the first scenes involves all the animals sharing the waterhole. To get water for himself, Mowgli has created a little contraption out of a turtle shell and a vine. The other animals chastise him for resorting to these “tricks”, but they are what make him special. Through the application of his mind, he is able to do things that they other animals cannot do.
The Jungle Book is very easily the best of the Disney live action remakes, with the other true competition being Cinderella. The nuanced themes of The Jungle Book, the fantastic performances, and game-changing visuals give it the edge. Though there are a few uneven aspects of the film, they are minor and very easily overlooked in favor of the myriad successes.
What did you think about The Jungle Book, and how do you feel about Disney’s recent decision to adapt its traditional animated stories in to live-action versions? Which film would you absolutely like to see get a live-action adaptation, and which one absolutely should not? Let me know in the comments, and share with your friends!