I have to admit that one of the modern cinema trends I’m most turned off by is this cluster of live-action remakes of fairy tales and classic stories that had been previously immortalised as animations. It’s not so much the principle of them, just that I’ve found them to be mostly terrible. Disney’s latest entry to the team, a remake of their 1967 movie The Jungle Book is probably the best one I’ve seen yet, though that’s obviously a very low bar to leap.
Having said that, it’s difficult to really call this a live-action movie at all, nearly everything about it is CG. All of its animal characters were created in computers, as was the jungle itself (it was shot on green screen soundstages). It’s only the young actor playing Mowgli who might actually be a physical object, but animation techniques have sufficiently advanced now that that’s really not an issue. Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Elf) demonstrates a solid command of this tech, bringing the Indian jungle to life in an eye-catching manner so convincing you’d never know it was all filmed in California.
The Jungle Book possesses an unusual pace for what’s essentially a children’s film. It’ doesn’t try to draw audiences in with big action scenes or comedy, instead calmly opening with Ben Kingsley’s voice-over, which sounds like it could be verbatim from the 19th century Rudyard Kipling text, and explaining the status quo in the jungle of its setting.
As all the animals gather to drink following a dry spell, the hostile tiger Shere Khan (deliciously voiced by Idris Elba) first catches sight of the “man-cub” Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi), who’s been raised by a family of wolves and announces his displeasure. Soon Mowgli is forced to leave for his own safety as the tiger want’s him dead.
The majority of the film is a fairly episodic series of scenes when Mowgli encounters various different animals as he travels through the jungle – two of whom join him for longer stretches; the panther Bagheera (voiced with a cool authority by Ben Kingsley) and the bear Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray being Bill Murray). Every animal having a very famous voice behind it does prove to be a little distracting at times, and several only appear in the one scene. A couple of them, the python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and ape King Louie (Christopher Walken), here effectively re-imagined as a long-extinct gigantopithicus rather than an orang-utan, are re-purposed as genuinely scary characters. The film is really quite frightening in places, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it induced nightmare for many members of its target audience. There’s even a jump-scare to rival anything in The Conjuring 2, which I saw the previous day.
One big issue with The Jungle Book though is that it can’t commit to being a musical or not. The sixties animation spawned a couple of enduringly popular songs, and it seems like Disney included them here out of some misplaced belief that expectant audiences would be disappointed by their omission. Bill Murray’s rendition of The Bear Necessities just about scrapes by due to its context, but when the shadowy, threatening King Louie bursts into I Wanna Be Like You it’s jarringly inappropriate, he even follows this up by trying to kill Mowgli. The film’s trying to have it both ways and it doesn’t work, considering its overall tone, it would have been better off just cutting out the songs entirely.
While it’s never dull, the unstructured narrative of Favreau’s Jungle Book feels a little emotionally dry, and it’s hard to really connect to any of the characters, Mowgli or the animals. It has a few impressive moments but mainly feels like a showcase for the technology, which is admittedly quite extraordinary in showing the progress made since the likes of Jumanji (which is itself being remade). With a better story, this tech could be employed to enhance an overall greater experience, and given the success of this film, I wouldn’t be surprised is Disney is lining up The Lion King next for the treatment, an proposition I’d now be less resistant to.