Disney’s 1967 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, is my absolute favourite of the studio’s extensive and impressive catalogue of animated classics. With a winning combination of the Sherman Brothers’ toe-tapping tunes and an excellent voice cast that includes Phil Harris, the final production to have been overseen by Walt Disney himself has always felt like the coolest of the bunch; a film that, despite its jazz soundtrack, felt strangely rock “n” roll.
The fact that I hold the original film in such high esteem has meant, however, that the prospect of another ‘live action’ remake had left me cold right up to the point of my seeing the film. So, consider my surprise to find that not only does Jon Favreau’s adaptation match the extraordinarily high standards set by the original film, but that it often surpasses them in more ways than one.
It’s a rarity for a remake to be as good, if not better than its source material, but Favreau – a director who has already proven his talents with films such as Elf and Iron Man – has managed to serve up just that. Whilst its existence has been justified and sold primarily due to it being ‘live action’ – my niece, for example, asked if I would take her to see the ‘real’ Jungle Book – this is the weakest part of the film in that there’s hardly any live action at all.
Other than the performance of newcomer, Neel Sethi – who puts in some fantastic work as Mowgli the mancub, especially when you consider he’s essentially acting opposite nothing – everything else you see on screen is all animated. This isn’t a criticism in the slightest and the film’s visuals are eye-poppingly beautiful, made all the more impressive due to the photorealistic detail that has gone into them.
Everything from the various textures and landscapes of the jungle, right down to the hairs and scales of its various residents feels absolutely real. The advances in animation since the 1960s only serves the story, which is expanded here to include a catalogue of characters of all shapes and sizes that could have never been realised back in the days of traditional, hand-drawn animation.
As stunning a film as it is, where this Jungle Book shines first and foremost is in its storytelling. Finding a perfect balance between the old and new, the director is careful not to stay too far from the path set out by the original and manages to perfectly hit all the character, as well as musical notes that you’d expect it to.
In some ways, it’s as if the director has stripped back the film to only include the very best moments of the original, doing away with some of the weaker, more cutesy moments of the 1967 version. From all the songs, only the two most memorable ones are included – The Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You – paying homage to the classic without becoming a fully blown musical. The result is something which feels much leaner and straight to the point.
We get all those famous moments with Baloo, Kaa and King Louis – played here as a gangster by Christopher Walken, who surprisingly manages to pull off his musical number – but it is ultimately the added material which justifies this film’s being. Whilst it manages to maintain the spirit of the much beloved original, it’s the new themes and ideas that are introduced from Kipling’s book which are most fascinating. Not only is there more of a focus on the politics of the jungle and the rules by which its inhabitants live, but the film manages to make the jungle feel dark and dangerous without ever crossing the line.
Another large part of the film’s success is due to its inspired casting. Bill Murray as Baloo; Ben Kingsley as Bagheera; Idris Elba as Shere Kahn; these are genius casting choices, so much so that I struggle to think as to who else could have possibly voiced these characters. Murray is a particular highlight as Baloo, managing to somehow successfully inject his own unique sense of deadpan humour to the character.
I would have never expected it, but The Jungle Book is a triumph. Through the marriage of stunning and colourful visuals, pitch perfect casting and flawless storytelling, Jon Favreau has managed to make something that feels altogether familiar and unique. As much as this is a celebration of the 1967 original – one that will leave you on a euphoric high and humming those brilliant tunes – it’s also a thrilling and often exhilarating reimagining that feels bigger and more exciting than any other version to date. It’s a summer blockbuster which the whole family can legitimately enjoy, and the best of the recent slew of Disney remakes in that it actually improves on the original. Trust me, go see it.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com