Walt Disney famously told his story team "Don't read the book" when it came to the studio's animated version of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. That seemingly odd wisdom proved successful in 1967 when Disney's most swingin' animated musical became an instant classic. Many animators from the 1990's renaissance cite that film more than any other as being the catalyst that inspired them to enter the animation industry. And now, almost fifty years later, it has inspired director Jon Favreau in Disney's latest live action remake.
The film begins with a new castle intro that looks retro, taking audiences back in time to Disneyland of the 1960's. I was delighted to hear George Bruns' iconic melody from the animated film start the picture before John Debney's original score takes over. It begins with a two-dimensional animated look that morphs into this lush, three dimensional world that welcomes you back to the jungle.
Favreau's Jungle Book is based more on the Disney animated film than the Kipling source material, and yet it has no problem keeping the story fresh and exciting. Mowgli is a "man cub," a human child raised by wolves in the jungle. But when Shere Khan wants the boy dead, Baghera tries to return the reluctant child to the man village. Along the way, Mowgli makes friends with a lazy bear named Baloo and encounters some new dangers in the deepest parts of the jungle.
While the story is the same, there are a few notable differences. Those concerned by trailers that the film is too dark can rest at ease knowing that it is very faithful to the tone and spirit of the animated classic. However, the story has been darkened just enough to keep audiences on their toes. It also reintroduces a few Kipling elements that were absent in the animated version, but these changes serve only to enrich your enjoyment of the story, not to fundamentally change it.
The Jungle Book offers an immersive moviegoing experience and at times, it's easy to forget that almost everything you're seeing is a visual effect. The film was made entirely in Los Angeles without a single live animal on screen, relying on motion capture technology to create the animal performances. It's visually breathtaking and the live-action/animation integration is seamless. If there's one criticism I can give the film, it's that occasionally animal movements look unnatural.
"The Bear Necessities," "Trust in Me" and "I Wanna Be Like You" all make appearances in various forms. Bill Murray's Baloo is just as carefree as Phil Harris' was, therefore it does not feel out of place when he teaches Mowgli his outlook on life through song. Kaa the snake uses slightly different tactics to hypnotize the boy, but the mesmerizing melody is still used. As for King Louie, Christopher Walken's gigantopithecus may not be a jazzy scatter, but that doesn't stop him from expressing his desires through song, including a brand-new verse by Richard Sherman. "The Bear Necessities" also reappears as the end credit song performed by Dr. John, who also sang the end credit version of "Cruella de Vil" for 1996's live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians.
Performances are consistently wonderful throughout the film, even some of the more interesting casting choices prove inspired. King Louie is by far the most changed character, but Christopher Walken is so wonderful as the leader of the primate kingdom that you quickly dismiss what feels initially foreign. Bill Murray breaths warmth into the lackadaisical bear Baloo and Idris Elba is terrifying as Shere Khan. Of the animal performances, Lupita Nyong'o as Mowgli's wolf mom Raksha adds a nice emotional element that was absent in the animated version. But it is Neel Sethi as Mowgli who really holds the whole picture together, it's an amazing performance from such a young actor.
Few remakes of animated classics are able to recapture the magic that made the original special, but The Jungle Book does so effortlessly. It doesn't aim to replace the original, but serves to enhance your appreciation of the animated film while also standing on its own. In other words, this is the best live action remake Disney has ever produced. If you grew up with the original classic, you won't want to miss this.
I give The Jungle Book 5 out of 5 red flowers.