The Jungle Book: A Delightful Update of Disney’s Beloved Classic

Director: Jon Favreau

Screenplay: Justin Marks

Cast: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson

Adventure

105 min

It had probably been closer to 20 years since I last saw Disney’s animated adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s tale, and I felt the urge to revisit my childhood favorite prior to the newest live-action remake. The rush of nostalgia was still there: the brilliant musical numbers, the timelessness of the handcrafted artwork, and an array of iconic characters such as Bagheera, Shere Khan, and the vulture quartet (a now obvious reference to The Beatles!) Yet the landmark animation (which was the last one to be overseen by Walt Disney himself) also bears shortcomings that I’d never picked up as a kid. The plot is paper-thin, and the relative lack of character development makes it hard to genuinely care about Mowgli’s choice between cubhood and manhood. Many of today’s viewers will also spot moments of racial stereotyping, and you’d be hard-pressed to miss the sexist suggestions within the climactic song that ultimately lures our hero back to humanity.

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Being a product of its time, none of these observations necessarily tarnish the impact The Jungle Book had on future animations. But it is perhaps understandable as to why Disney has now reconfigured Kipling’s original text for a modern audience (apart from the obvious financial motivation: the film has already made a staggering amount of money in the box office). After facing its fair share of pre-production skepticism, Iron Man director John Favreau and co. seem to have pulled off the unthinkable: not only does the remake resolve many of the original’s problems, but it also happens to be the superior work in terms of sheer cinematic enjoyment. Talk about bare necessities and then some!

The single biggest draw of the remake is the confident lead by 12-year-old newcomer Neel Sethi, who completely embodies the mannerisms of mancub Mowgli. From the very opening scene, we get a tangible sense of purpose and urgency that was always lacking in the animated counterpart. Although Sethi mostly plays against digitally rendered surroundings, his physicality often captures the frenzied spirit of Mel Gibson’s jungle epic Apocalypto (George Lucas, take note). It is not quite as nuanced a child performance as Jacob Tremblay’s staggering turn in Room (2015), but it is also worth noting that his performance does cater to more popcorn-inclined crowd. That said, there is real dramatic/comedic heft to the way Sethi carries the scenes: tender moments with wolf mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and laugh-out-loud exploits with Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) are indicative of a very bright career in acting.

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It is also impressive how Neel Sethi holds his own against such a classy ensemble of voice actors. Bill Murray and Ben Kingsley (Bagheera the panther) excel as Mowgli’s furry father figures, yet it is Idris Elba who practically steals the show as the shrewd Shere Khan. His ferocity echoes the dastardly demeanor of Scar from The Lion King, and the digital rendering comes close to topping the astonishing realism of the Bengal tiger in Life of Pi. There will always be those who criticize the artifice of CGI visuals, but I reckon that the dazzling creature effects and fluid cinematography here will satisfy most fans of blockbuster epics. Apart from the usual suspects in the character roster, the picture is littered with wondrous faunal and floral nuances that will keep things fresh during repeat viewings. Also, keep an eye out for an electrifying cameo by Christopher Walken – words simply fail when describing how outrageous a screen presence the man is.

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The main gripe I had revisiting the 1967 version was its firmly divisive moral in the end: Mowgli’s place is in the village, and the animals that raised him belong in the jungle. The remake does a smart job of reconciling this detachment by focusing on Mowgli’s loyalty to his friends, and the respective anxieties he has about entering the looming human village. Ecological dimensions, such as the early plot device of the “Water Truce”, flesh out the animals as more than conduits for human-centric themes – every creature is fighting for their own survival, and the actions of humans are often treated with suspicion and hostility. I occasionally wished the film pushed its dark themes even a bit further, but we should probably not lose sight of the target audience: even with its upbeat family atmosphere, there are individual scenes which may frighten the youngest of mancubs in the audience. The prominent sensation I had during the end credits, however, was that of joy and wonder. Regardless of age, The Jungle Book offers an exciting and positively heartfelt re-imagining of a familiar tale – and will certainly serve as a litmus test for any future live-action adaptations by Disney.

4 STARS (out of 5)