Jon Favreau’s reimagining of the Disney classic The Jungle Book is not the first time in recent years that a very well-regarded animation has been remade in live action. In 2010, we got Alice in Wonderland, 2014 brought us Maleficent, with last year’s Cinderella the most recent. However, it is probably the boldest of these remakes so far, having to not only live up to a universally beloved original, but also transfer a story with only one human character from a cartoon into ‘reality’. Thankfully, The Jungle Book is a wildly successful update of its source film, a simple story told with sincerity, a great sense of fun, and astonishing visuals.
Mowgli’s (Neel Sethi) journey through the jungle – after being separated from his wolf pack by the return of scarred tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) – is a familiar one to many audience members, and none of the key beats of the original are missed out here. From Kaa the snake’s (Scarlett Johansson) trippy attempt make Mowgli into dinner to King Louie’s (Christopher Walken) demand for fire, via learning about the good life from Baloo (Bill Murray), every key scene from the animation is brought to stunning life by Favreau and his team of exceptional VFX artists.
Every animal, as well as the jungle itself, looks absolutely, flawlessly real. From the moment we’re first introduced to Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley), you feel you could reach out and touch all of these CG creatures. Remarkably, this photorealism doesn’t clash with the more obviously ‘cartoony’ bits of the original. When the animals talk, they still look just as natural and believable as when they’re roaring, an incredibly impressive feat of effects work. It is also hard to believe that the film was shot almost entirely on green screen sets – the jungle is the most convincing virtual world since Avatar, and the 3D actually adds to the experience, creating a truly immersive film.
This realism comes at the cost that this Jungle Book is not quite as family friendly as its predecessor – the stakes seem higher and the bad guys more threatening. Mowgli’s escape from King Louie (an enormous Gigantopithecus in this version rather than the traditional organutan), in particular, is very tense, and likely too scary for any children under eight. Louie’s fear factor is also increased immensely by the film-stealing voice work of Walken, who gives a sinister Mafioso drawl to this king of the apes.
Favreau has assembled a stellar voice cast across the board – Idris Elba brings regal menace to Shere Khan, Scarlett Johansson strikes just the right balance of predatory and seductive as Kaa, and Bill Murray completely owns the iconic role of Baloo. His take on ‘Bear Necessities’ is not quite as catchy as the original tune, but the way in which it’s integrated into the film is terrific. The other truly unskippable track from 1967 version, Louis Prima’s ‘I Wanna Be Like You’, is the most unabashed ‘musical moment’, reworked to better fit Walken’s take on the Louie character. Like ‘Bear Necessities’, it can’t quite compete with Louis Prima’s take, but to hear Christopher Walken singing as a giant ape is its own special joy.
As the only human in the entire cast, newcomer Neel Sethi faced a daunting challenge, acting against nothing but green, and he does an impressive job. The way he moves through the trees totally sells that he’s actually leaping across a jungle canopy, and there’s no hint of awkwardness in his interactions with all the animals. Obviously, much of the credit for this has to go to Favreau as director, but CG-heavy movies have proved difficult obstacles for far more experienced actors, so one can’t discount the talents of Sethi.
Importantly, the characters of The Jungle Book are well-drawn in all senses of the word, from the excellent animation to their clear motivations and well-built relationships. Mowgli’s wolf family, with his adoptive mother Raksha voiced by Lupita Nyong’o, are immediately likable, and the powerful but gentle performances of Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito as the pack leader make it clear that the animal world of this universe is caring enough to raise a human amongst them.
The Jungle Book is a really lovely film, taking the elements that work from a venerated piece of family entertainment and, for the most part, matches or even improves them. A cracking cast brings a masterfully realised virtual world to life in a fun adventure that should please old fans while winning new ones. With live-action versions of Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and more on Disney’s horizon, The Jungle Book bodes well for the success of blending non-human characters with photo-real worlds. As long as these upcoming films have even half the spirit of this one, they should turn out just fine.