I’ll be honest. When I first heard of Disney’s intentions to make a live action/CGI remake of the 1967 animated classic The Jungle Book, there were very few, if any at all, positive thoughts that came to mind. Not only is The Jungle Book one of my very favourite Disney films of all time, but the announcement came at a time when I was reaching the end of my tether with regards to the iconic studio and their continuing obsession with unnecessarily refreshing old classics to appeal to younger audiences. Though I was born some two decades after the release of the original, it doesn’t make me love it any less, and I don’t know why today’s filmmakers are so certain that all stories need a new angle to appeal to ‘the kids’. However, being the Disney nut that I am and despite my numerous reservations, I took myself to see if this Jon Favreau directed picture would be able to change my mind.
And you know what? I was really, immensely, pleasantly surprised.The first thing you need to do is push the 1967 animation out of your mind, as I quickly learned, there is not much point comparing them as they speak to two very distinctly different tones of Rudyard Kipling’s original story. Telling the story in a much darker, more serious tone, the audience sees man cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) venture through the jungle in his attempt to both escape the clutches of the menacing tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) whilst at the same time avoid orders to reunite with his ‘kind’ and join the nearest man village. Though the overall story is understandably familiar, what is great about this new Jungle Book is that, give or take a few cute references and brief musical hints to the original animation, it feels very much like a stand alone piece of cinema that brings new and interesting merit to the old tale. Within ten minutes my biggest concern, the concern of what the CGI filled picture would actually look like, was put to rest. Though Neel Sethi as Mowgli is the only real life presence in the entire film, to my eye absolutely none of the computer graphics work looked anything but sensational. Of course, it doesn’t look 100% like the boy is riding on the back of a grizzly bear, but the CGI never for a second took me out the movie and that is all anyone can really hope for. As for the tone of the film, Jon Favreau has clearly gone for a much darker, more sinister take on the tale, one which sees Shere Khan as a much more threatening presence and there were more than a few occasions when the youngest of my fellow audience members could be heard crying in fear and dread at Mowgli’s fight for survival. Ultimately, the film hits all of the necessary plot points whilst at the same time exploring new and different aspects of this universe that we came to love in a very different, more light hearted way some fifty years ago. In truth, it sort of took my breath away in the way that a truly good action adventure can do. It has heart, it has charm, it has danger and menace and it has just the right amount of sentimentality to endear you to all the characters without being too saccharine. Well done Disney, you’ve proven me wrong yet again!
Huge credit must be given to young Neel Sethi, who gives a performance as close to a human copy of the animated Mowgli as you are ever likely to see. He captures the essence of the character in his voice and in his mannerisms, and as the only flesh and blood on screen he works incredibly hard and incredibly effectively to give the audience a surrogate to enjoy the action through. Just as the character does in the 1967 original, Bill Murray’s Baloo brings some much needed light and humour to the proceedings, providing a handful of fun set pieces to counterbalance the ongoing threat of Mowgli’s battle with Shere Khan. Murray’s improvised jazz take on the Bare Necessities might ruffle a few purist’s feathers, but I found it to be charming and different. Ben Kingsley gives a suitably imperious and wise voice performance as the guardian panther Bagheera, and Christopher Walken adds yet another quirky and memorable notch in his cinematic belt with his take on a Godfather-Ensue King Louie. Idris Elba as the villainous Shere Khan is gritty and unapologetically evil, with the actor clearly relishing his task of upsetting younger viewers and sending a holy of genuine fear and dread their way. Great added voice roles are provided by the likes of Lupita Nyong’o and Scarlett Johansson, and though the original Jungle Book has arguably one of the most endearing and memorable voice casts of all time, this modern crew has really pulled out all the stops to breath as much life in the characters as possible, and it really, really works.
Overall, after all of the months I spent bemoaning the existence of this remake, I have to say that 2016’s The Jungle Book is pretty fantastic. I laughed, I cried, I jumped, I cheered, all of the reactions that any family filmmaker would wish to evoke from an audience member. I can’t write put my finger on it, but there is something truly special feeling about the picture, whether it’s the stunning computer graphics, the tried and tested tale or simply my nostalgia for the original. Whatever it is, I had a brilliant time. See it on the big screen while you still can to enjoy the full magical effect.