The Jungle Bookby Alex Stroup, staff writer
"Doesn't Hollywood have any original ideas?" is the appropriate response to looking at Disney's recent crop of releases and seeing it chock-a-block with animated classics (and not-so-classics) being recycled into live-action films.
Rarely has the promise of CGI and cheap computing power seemed so misdirected.
We've already had Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, and Cinderella. While each has its moments, neither is a clear rebuke that doing this is a good idea. Looking ahead, Disney is in the works of offering up remakes of Pete's Dragon, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Dumbo, and Mulan—all in various stages of development. If you have a cherished favorite Disney animated movie, you can probably find some reason to get outraged at the prospect that Disney is working to defile it with real people and computer graphics.
Official movie trailer for "The Jungle Book" (2016). © Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Hitting theaters this week is The Jungle Book, a live-action remake of the 1967 film. Your reviewer was halfway towards dismissing it out of hand just based on the obvious reasons it has to be awful: child actors carrying most of the weight of the movie; animal actors carrying the rest of it—those animal actors being completely CGI. And, worst of all, their mouths move when they talk. Just like people. Oh, isn't that so cute... No! It's awful! It has to be!
Alas, it isn't.
From the beginning, the film drops you into the impossible and makes it OK. As a toddler, Mowgli (12-year-old rookie Neel Sethi) is found in the jungle by Bagheera, a panther (Ben Kingsley) who gives him to a pack of wolves to raise as one of their own. A local tyrant of a tiger name Shere Khan (Idris Elba) knows that a man-cub eventually grows to be a man, and man simply isn't allowed in the jungle.
After his death is demanded, it is decided that Mowgli must be taken to a nearby human village where he can be safe from Shere Khan. Along the way Mowgli ends up in the care of Baloo (Bill Murray), runs into King Louie (Christopher Walken), and eventually needs to figure out how to deal with the threat and keep everyone safe.
The bones of The Jungle Book remain unchanged from the 1967 movie, and yet almost everything is improved. Neel Sethi has an amazing burden put on his shoulders. As the only human with more than a glancing presence on screen, the entire weight of a major motion picture is on his shoulders. Now, it can't honestly be said that anything indicates Sethi is going to be one of our great actors. What he lacks when it comes to emoting, though, he more than makes up for with charisma and raw physicality as he moves through the jungle.
More imporantly, screenwriter Justin Marks and director Jon Favreau developed the animals as actual characters with flaws, growth, and much darker natures. Mowgli's rashness causes real trouble and puts everybody at real risk; Bagheera doesn't want Mowgli to express his human nature; Shere Khan is evil but he's not entirely wrong about man; Baloo is a lovable rake but still a rake. Best of all, King Louie is transformed into a much darker character, deeply jealous of mankind's control over fire. The one misstep was Kaa (Scarlett Johansson)—to provide some gender balance, Kaa was cast with a woman's voice, but then the role was reduced to nothing more than one scene to provide some necessary exposition.
Otherwise, by deepening these characters, the conflicts at the end gain real emotional weight. Which is important, since they definitely have real visual weight and intensity. So much so that despite still having a PG rating, several scenes are likely to be way too much for younger kids in the audience.
Allowing Mowgli to have flaws allows him to grow while also granting him agency in his own story's outcome. That makes it all quite satisfactory. It's just a bonus that BIll Murray singing "Bare Necessities" and Christopher Walken belting "I Wan'na Be Like You" are actually organic to the movie and play well with their flawed voices; stay through the credits to get a repeat performance from Walken.
It's kind of sad really. The pre-emptive outrage at a live action Make Mine Music just felt so good, but The Jungle Book reminds that it is best to just wait and see.
The Jungle Book is a Walt Disney Pictures release:
- Wide release on Friday, April 15, 2016.
- Directed by Jon Favreau.
- Written by Justin Marks.
- Starring Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, BIll Murray, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Christopher Walken.
- Rated PG for some sequences of scary action and peril.
- Running time 105 minutes.
- Alex's rating: 8 out of 10.