Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Neel Sethi, Scarlett Johansson (voice), Bill Murray (voice), Christopher Walken (voice), Ben Kingsley (voice), Idris Elba (voice)
The concept of Disney’s live-action remakes is proving to be quite divisive amongst fans and critics. For some, the animated classics should be left as they are, whilst others want to see their favourite cartoons made all the more spectacular with the wonderful new technologies available to filmmakers in the 21st century. I guess I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m a little uneasy at the thought of some of my favourite childhood films being remade, for fear of their magical aura being ruined by the Hollywood money train. Yet, at the same time, I’m excited to see what can be done to revitalise some of the more tired looking cartoons. This was particularly the case with ‘The Jungle Book. Being my second favourite Disney animation – beaten only by ‘The Lion King’ – I was willing this new 2016 version to at least do the original justice, and it was certainly everything I was hoping it would be.
The story should be familiar to most, but a recap never hurt anyone. Orphaned after his parents are killed by resident bad tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba), Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is left alone in the jungle with a pretty slim chance of survival. That is, until black panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) rescues the young boy and takes him into his care. Mowgli is entrusted to wolf couple Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and their pack, which turns out to be a harmonious relationship. That is until Shere Khan reappears to demand that Mowgli be handed over to him to be killed by his hand (or paw) before the young boy grows into a dangerous, “red-flower” (fire) wielding man. Scared for Mowgli’s safety, the wolves agree to let Bagheera escort Mowgli away from their home, but after another attack from Khan, Mowgli once again finds himself alone in the jungle. That is until another saviour, this time in the form of loveable bear Baloo (Bill Murray), becomes Mowgli’s new companion as they descend deeper into the jungle.
That’s a lot to fit into 100 or so minutes, and that’s where my main criticism towards the film lies. Much like ‘Batman vs Superman’ (yes I’m still using this as a reference point), the film does feel rather incoherent. Favreau jumps from scene to scene without any warning and you aren’t given any time to process or appreciate what you’ve just seen, before you’re somewhere else with different characters. It feels very episodic, almost like a collection of two or three minute individual episodes that have been shoved together to try and make a coherent feature length story, and it doesn’t quite work in my opinion.
The only other negative I would throw at the film was with some of the voice performances. Don’t take it personally Scarlett, but the Kaa voice just wasn’t for me and quite frankly Kaa’s involvement in the film is completely unnecessary. I appreciate it wouldn’t be a Jungle Book film without the inclusion of the character, but whereas in the cartoon the snake is one of the central characters, here there is no apparent need for the serpent’s inclusion, which was a shame. A voice performance I still haven’t decided whether I liked was Elba’s villainous Shere Khan. There were moments that were truly spine-tingling and then there were times that he appeared to slip into plain old Idris Elba, which ruined the illusion at times. Everyone else was absolutely superb. Ben Kingsley was serene and sophisticated and Bill Murray’s Baloo was fantastic. I was most nervous about Baloo as a character; I’ve become so accustomed to Disney stalwart Phil Harris’ vocal rendition of the most iconic of Disney characters that I was scared Murray’s attempt wouldn’t stand up – but it did and wonderfully so. Baloo was characterised so perfectly that I soon found myself awash with nostalgia. He’s the character that encapsulates the Disney masterclass of creating jokes and laughs for all ages and indeed a couple of his one-liners had adults laughing out loud in my screening. I just wish there was more of him. However, his claim to star of the show is under serious threat from Neel Sethi and Christopher Walken. Sethi was fantastic as the only live character in a live-action film (you do the math) and he played the role fantastically. But for me, the most surprising characterisation was Walken’s King Louie. Whereas all the other characters are near enough as we’ve seen them before, King Louie is different. Very different. Honestly, people are going to lose their mind over this reimaging of the “King of the Swingers”. I will admit that I was almost a little scared during his scenes, and at this point I should say this is a darker retelling of the story and there are a couple of scenes that may be slightly unnerving for younger children.
Given this film has been billed as a “live-action” remake, the film relies a lot on special effects, but visually it’s an absolute masterpiece. It’s a wonderful spectacle that will instill awe in people of all ages. Sadly, we may be at a time, through the ultimate sin of parenthood, where younger children may not have had the pleasure of watching the 1967 animated original of Rudyard Kipling’s beloved tale. If young children are going to be attending the cinema to watch Baloo and Co. for the first time over the coming weeks, I hope they have the same level of joy as I did upon my latest visit to the jungle. If this is the level that Disney are setting as a benchmark for their new live-action remakes, then we’re in for a treat over the coming years.