The last animated feature overseen by Walt Disney, the 1967 The Jungle Book is dearly loved by generations, primarily for its infectious music and standout characters. Jon Favreau’s stunning new adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic stories about a boy raised in the jungle will be dearly loved for much more. It’s a fantastic film, visually stunning, full of great characters, and adds much-needed depth to the story–while giving gentle nods of homage to the animated film in all the right ways.
The film opens with the familiar Disney castle, but unlike the CG rendering that’s been around for many years, it’s a traditionally-animated version. The camera pulls back into an animated jungle as the familiar strains of George Bruns’ original “Overture” begins–and transitions into a live-action jungle. In that moment alone, older generations are reassured that Favreau and his team aren’t going to trash their memories. Just hearing that music sets audiences up to realize this film is taking us in new, but well-loved, directions.
The story itself is familiar: Mowgli, a boy found by panther Bagheera and raised by a wolf pack, is threatened by Shere Khan, a tiger who hates man. Forced to go back to the man-village for his own safety, the boy encounters a wide variety of characters and adventures along the way.
The original animated film suffered from feeling episodic: every moment is just an excuse to set Mowgli (the most boring character in the film) up for an encounter with a crazy group of characters and fun music. Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks wisely adjust elements of the story to change this. Mowgli (played incredibly by newcomer Neel Sethi) is no longer just a boy who lets things happen to him, he is a key part of the story, especially toward the end, when a big change from the original film motivates him to return to his wolf pack. The film gives Mowgli more time with his adopted family, adding much-needed heart to the film as well. His mother, Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) is a powerful presence in the new version, driving Mowgli’s great desire to be a bigger part of the wolf pack who have always been his family.
Shere Khan (a much different voice performance by Idris Elba than his Chief Bogo in Disney’s Zootopia) is not the suave and dignified character from the animated film. He is clearly a threat to every animal, and his disdain for Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) the panther who serves as Mowgli’s guide and protector, is obvious. As the film’s true villain, the tiger is portrayed as a monster who cares nothing for the jungle’s ethos, killing for pleasure, and using his power to maintain control over the frightened populace. The other menacing character, surprisingly, is King Louie (Christopher Walken, being awesome as usual), who is a larger monkey than Louis Prima’s jazz-loving orangutan. Mowgli’s encounter with the monkey king may still sing the Sherman Brothers’ “I Wan’na Be Like You,” but he’s a much bigger threat to the man cub than audiences may be expecting.
The original animated film’s true star was Baloo the bear, and Phil Harris’ easy-going delivery of the Oscar-nominated song “The Bare Necessities,” earned him a permanent home in the Disney character hall of fame. In another smart move, the filmmakers cast Bill Murray as Baloo in this retelling. He’s less easy-going and smooth than Harris, reminding me more of Murray’s lovable slob with a big heart in Stripes, one of his iconic roles from his 1980’s heyday. This Baloo teaches and sings “The Bare Necessities” to Mowgli, and is the first character to encourage him to be what he is. This is a central theme of every great Disney film (especially since the 90’s animated renaissance), and it helps the movie tell a much deeper story.
The fact that the movie was “Filmed entirely in downtown Los Angeles,” as the end credits so clearly state, is also a sign of how incredible an achievement this new Jungle Book is. It’s an entirely engrossing jungle setting, and it’s incredibly difficult to see evidence of CG anywhere, even though you’re seeing it everywhere. The animals are also a giant step forward in visual effects, as they look and act so real that my kids were convinced to be on the lookout for giant boa constrictors like Kaa (a great voice performance by Scarlett Johansson) and wondering how they got the bear “to do that.” Visually, it’s one of the best-looking live action films I’ve ever seen, making leaps and bounds over the Oscar-winning visuals of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.
Finally, one of the film’s greatest strengths is in John Debney’s score. From the opening credit homage to the original film’s iconic music, it’s clear that Debney went into the project intending to use that to his advantage. Although only two of the original movie’s songs are used in this version, Debney uses the melody of many of the songs as aural cues, lending several “a-ha” moments for older viewers. Particularly striking is the use of “Trust in Me” during Mowgli’s encounter with Kaa, and the orchestral version of “The Bare Necessities” that accompanies a stunning run through the jungle. Justin Marks’ screenplay also throws in several of the original movie’s best lines (“The man village? They’ll ruin him! They’ll make a man out of him!”), which serve as a great throwback while still telling an original story.
It’s a much more intense story than the animated classic. Because the characters are so lifelike, the stakes appear to be much higher, and Mowgli does appear to be in a lot more danger than he ever did from the animated tiger or snake. This is important for parents of young kids to think about before taking their littlest ones. (One quibble: I missed hearing the elephants talking like British colonial soldiers. But I did like the way the film keeps the cats British, while the monkey retains his New York accent.)
The Jungle Book is an amazing film, fully deserving of all the praise it’s getting. Favreau honors Walt Disney’s original film while creating a much deeper story, and the movie gets everything right. Warner Brother has their own version in development right now, and all I can say is, “Good luck.”