The Jungle Book is the latest live-action remake of a Disney animated classic—though it’s a little difficult to classify this picture as “live-action” when all but one of the characters and most of the environments are created entirely with CGI. Director Jon Favreau (Elf, Iron Man, Cowboys & Aliens) is totally in his element working on such a grand scale with such an expansive digital canvas. The film, shot in 3D via a combination of cutting-edge techniques, sets a new standard for photorealistic computer animation. And the source material is strong enough that it holds your interest even if you’re the type of viewer who inevitably stops marveling at the impressive visuals well before the halfway point of any CGI feature. This second Disney “live-action” The Jungle Book (a 1994 revamp starred martial artist Jason Scott Lee) succeeds both at capturing the playful spirit of the original 1969 animated classic and at more faithfully adapting the eponymous collective stories written by Rudyard Kipling in 1894.
Like Kipling’s tales, the film centers on Mowgli, a human "man cub" raised by wolves in the Indian jungle. Mowgli grows up learning the laws (both physical and moral) of society from a group of anthropomorphized animals. As the young boy reaches adolescence, his wise protector Bagheera, a black panther, believes he must return to the human village in order to escape the wrath of the menacing, man-hating tiger, Shere Khan. But Mowgli’s trip back to his own kind is interrupted when he hooks up with a fun-loving bear named Baloo and is kidnapped by a giant ape named King Louie.
In 1969, major animated movies were populated by the greatest voice actors of the day, regardless of how famous they may or may not have been outside of radio and cartoons. Today, animated features, like all other Hollywood product, must cast celebrities to ensure maximum box office. I normally lament this practice but in this case I can’t complain. The vocal talents of Bill Murray as Baloo, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Lupita Nyong'o as Mowgli’s adoptive mother Raksha, Scarlett Johansson as the sinister snake Kaa, and Christopher Walken as King Louie equal, or perhaps even surpass, the consummate, iconic casting of the original—Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, George Sanders, Sterling Holloway, and Louis Prima.
The 1969 animated feature, the last film produced by Walt Disney before his death, is one of the most politically incorrect pictures that studio ever released— which is saying a lot. Kipling’s writings were already full of British imperialist attitudes about white men taming the “lesser breeds” of humanity. And the original Disney version delights in wall-to-wall unflattering racial and gender caricatures. Most audiences seem to gloss over these non-enlightened depictions because the majority of the stereotypes are found within the musical numbers, and the songs in The Jungle Book are some of the best in the entire Disney cannon— which is also saying a lot. It’s so much fun listening to Louis Prima (as the shiftless yet dangerous-when-empowered monkey) belt out the chorus of “I Wanna Be Like You,” that we might miss the brazenly racist subtext that is either intentionally or unwittingly contained within that catchy Sherman Brothers tune. The song sung by the young girl who eventually lures Mowgli back to the man village, “My Own Home,” is a hilarious ode to domesticity and patriarchal order that was already dated back in 1969.
Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks wisely tone down the color commentary in their version and add gravitas to the female roles. They also transform Kipling’s themes of overcoming nature and the natural world into a parable about living in harmony with nature and protecting the delicate balance of the ecosystem. They handle these changes well, with nothing ever coming across as preachy or as some kind of awkward apology for previous incarnations of these stories.
The shooting style and editorial pacing are also admirable. This is not one of those inelegant kids movies that rushes through its story as fast as possible with loud crashes and characters shouting and screaming every five seconds. Even during action sequences, cinematographer Bill Pope (Army of Darkness, The Matrix, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) fashions smooth, fluid camera movements that maintain our connection to the characters and the environment they inhabit. And editor Mark Livolsi (The Devil Wears Prada, The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) holds these shots long enough for us to comprehend everything that unfolds within them. Favreau clearly understands how to design and execute big and small, loud and quiet moments for maximum impact on the giant screens that films like this one are made to play on.
Unfortunately, the episodic nature of Kipling’s tales lends itself better to a musical than to a straightforward adaptation. Each section of the narrative plays like an individual set piece with not enough dramatic connective tissue to hold it all together. Perhaps because of this shortcoming, Favreau hedges his bets by including two of the songs from the original Disney movie within the body of his new version. The first occurrence, the toe-tappin’ and Oscar winning “The Bare Necessities," written by Terry Gilkyson, works perfectly in an episode where Baloo teaches Mowgli how to sing as part of his greater education on the joys of a carefree life. But when the action switches to King Louie’s compound, the power of the climax is undercut by including “I Wanna Be Like You.” The clever sequence is designed to recall the end of Apocalypse Now, with the giant ape Louie rendered to resemble Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz crossed with the actor providing the voice, Christopher Walken. It may simply have been too difficult to pass up the opportunity to have the great Chris Walken sing the iconic song in this new picture, but it would have been better saved for the closing credits. When the film breaks with its established reality and goes into a full-blown production number, any dramatic tension it had built up gets swept away, and the lengthy chase and destruction sequence that follows is neutered.
By the time the end titles role on this mega-budget extravaganza, most of what dazzled and delighted has evaporated. I found it telling that after such an immersive picture I was left not with memories of incredible images or emotional highs, but with academic thoughts about how this adaption compared to previous versions. Granted, as a childless forty-four-year-old who loves old movies, I admit that I am the farthest thing from this film’s intended demographic. But I don’t believe Favreau’s The Jungle Book will capture kids’ long-term imaginations the way so many other Disney features do. It will lose much of its power when reduced from 3D IMAX screens to iPads and minivan TV monitors, and I don’t think even the caliber of vocal talent will be enough to keep kids coming back to it again and again.