Disney’s strategy to remake animated classics into live-action films has definitely resulted in a mixed bag. “Cinderella” was great. “Maleficent” was OK. “101 Dalmatians” was awful. “Alice in Wonderland” was a little weird, but the author of the book was high on opium when he wrote the story, so that’s to be expected. Overall, the remakes have been so-so, with the exception of “Cinderella,” which most critics and moviegoers (from dads to moms to 20-somethings to little girls) praised as pretty fantastic (which, it is).
But if you’re a hardcore Disney fanatic, you can add another live-action remake to the list of successes: besides being cinematically gorgeous, “The Jungle Book” stays true to the animated classic (and to the short story “Mowgli’s Brothers” by Rudyard Kipling on which both films were based) while effortlessly pulling off a poignant coming-of-age story.
As a kid, “The Jungle Book” was never one of my favorite Disney movies. But watching the live-action remake of “The Jungle Book” completely changed my opinion of Rudyard Kipling’s famous story.
Mowgli (portrayed by Neel Sethi), raised by a wolf pack and a panther named Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) in an Indian jungle, is hunted by Shere Khan, the magnificent, ruthless tiger (voiced by Idris Elba) who killed his father. When Shere Khan threatens to destroy the wolves and anyone who protects Mowgli, the “man-cub” is forced to leave the only family he’s ever known and return to the “man village” before the great tiger finds him. Along the way, Mowgli meets the slippery python Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), an endearing bear named Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray), and the ginormous ape King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken) before he finally comes to terms with his humanity and place in the jungle.
Mowgli’s coming-of-age is subtly revealed at a careful pace, without rushing his growth or making the viewer feel like his choice to stop running and stand up to Shere Khan is forced. While the looming of shadow of the great tiger follows Mowgli’s adventures, the film manages to balance the darker moments with lighthearted scenes: Baloo and Mowgli singing the beloved “Bare Necessities” on a river and King Louie and the apes comically trying to be like men. Neel Sethi portrays Mowgli with surprising genuineness: while some of his lines seem a little forced, Sethi successfully acts, talks, and thinks like a 10-year-old boy. He reacts how anyone would expect a small boy to react when Bagheera tries to take him away from his games and tricks with Baloo, and when the only father he’s ever known is killed by the black-striped menace.
From a CGI standpoint, the film is a work of art. Some directors struggle to produce realistic fantasy films with so much computer-generated imagery at their disposal, but director Jon Favreau does a truly amazing job. The way Shere Khan’s muscles move under his striped skin makes him look completely real as he leaps down a ravine to drink at a pool — when the camera pans out, the sight of the tiger bending down to drink can only be described as majestic. Mowgli embracing his wolf-mother in the rain is a truly stunning shot — and the colors of the jungle are so vivid you could almost touch the flowers, vines, and trees when
Mowgli and Baloo are floating down a river. From an aesthetic standpoint, “The Jungle Book” is beautifully seamless.
But besides stellar acting and cinematography, the real selling-point of “The Jungle Book” is its timeless tale: even a young boy caught up with making pulley systems to steal honey from bees and playing games with wolf cubs can defend his family if his father is taken from him. Even if you’re only 10 years old, you can still find courage and stand up to fierce tigers.