It’s fair to say that Disney’s live action department hasn’t been brimming with originality as of yet. I’m not going to say they used to be bastions of creativity too because most of their films were based on an existing property, but at least they were things not put to film yet. Now they make things like Maleficent and Cinderella which promise interesting takes on old fairy tales and then simply proceed to re-tell that story, just with the awkward sexist and racist bits taken out. So can their latest update of a classic cartoon, The Jungle Book, fare any better?
Mowgli (Neel Sethi, First Feature Film) was abandoned in the jungle as a baby, but was taken in by Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and the rest of the wolf pack and grew up with them. However when Shere Khan (Idris Elba, Prometheus) realises there is a human in the jungle and vows to hunt him and kill him, Mowgli must escape and re-join his own kind in the man-village.
So first thing’s first, this film is absolutely stunning to look at. Pretty much everything in this film is CGI apart from Mowgli himself, yet at times you won’t believe what you are watching is fake. It’s simply the best CGI ever put to screen. The scenery is breathtaking to look at, with it all looking so real yet so beautiful. And from very brief talks with animators, animal fur is one of the toughest things to animate yet here it looks so realistic and quite honestly when you look at Raksha you will think they substituted in a real wolf at times. Though that illusion breaks when Mowgli hugs her as I imagine that would end very differently if it was a real wolf. But no matter what you think from the film here on in, you have to admit it is simply a wonder to look at.
But you can make something as pretty as you want, it needs a good plot to ground it and luckily this film has that. It’s broadly the same as the cartoon, though some things have been changed around. A lot of Kaa’s (Scarlet Johansson, Lost in Translation) bits have been cut which leaves her more as a glorified cameo, there’s no friendship with a little elephant, though they do come into play, and Shere Khan is more of a presence throughout the film. These changes are mixed. Kaa was one of my favourite characters from the original, though like many he left me deathly afraid of Winnie the Pooh for reasons I didn’t understand until recently, so obviously I’m gutted that she’s barely in this film and she’s mostly used as an exposition tool. However making Khan a presence to be feared throughout the film is genius and gives real impetus to our characters to keep on moving and to stop the plot from halting in its tracks.
It also helps that Khan is being voiced by Idris Elba, who is really going at it with the voice work in recent times. He brings such menace to the role and makes you instantly fear him just from the first moment he speaks at the watering hole to tell all the animals that humans do not belong in the jungle. It is a different sort of character to the one in the original, but it works because it makes Khan seem like this unstoppable menace and that Mowgli’s only plan of action can be to escape.
And Idris Elba isn’t the only great voice actor. The casting of Bill Murray (Groundog Day) as Baloo is so obvious that it’s amazing no one has thought of it before and it works just as well as you expect with Murray managing to infuse the character with that carefree attitude that makes us love him. We’ve also got Ben Kinglsey (Schindler’s List) as Bagheera who brings just the right amount of authority to the role, making him seem stern but it’s also very easy to tell that he does that because he cares about Mowgli. Also, well done to Neel Seethi who does a good, but not perfect, performance as Mowgli. Many seasoned actors struggle to perform when surrounded by green screen, it makes Ian McKellen cry, and Seethi makes it look very natural which is credit to his ability. He does have a few annoying moments, but he is a kid and they are annoying at times, so points for realism.
The thing that’s probably attracted the most criticism is the inclusion of the songs. Not that The Bare Necessities and I Wan’na Be Like You, quite the opposite they are classics, just some have thought they were out-of-place in the serious story there were telling. I full-heartedly disagree. Firstly, the way the songs are introduced are clever enough to start quiet and build into the big choruses, so you don’t really realise there’s a song until it’s happening and you are bobbing along. Secondly, if you don’t enjoy Christopher Walken (Catch Me If You Can) blasting out Ooby-doo, I don’t think you are human. It’s definitely my favourite part of the film.
Despite not claiming to be a new look at a classic story like other Disney remakes like Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, The Jungle Book is probably the most original of them all. It’s aware of the original’s weaknesses and changes them so we have a stronger narrative with better characters yet also acknowledges why we made it into a classic so keeps that stuff in there too and is able to mash it together to make a joyful film. It’s not perfect by any means, I’m still gutted by Kaa being relegated to a cameo role and I feel the ending goes against the theme of the story and is purely there to set up sequels. But if Disney’s live action remakes can be on this level from now on we’ll all stop complaining about their lack of originality. Maybe…