When the news hits that a cherished memory from your childhood is to be tampered with for newer audiences, you feel a sense of possessiveness come over you. Nostalgia creates a biased view of something in your mind that is, to your memory, perfection incarnate, and for many fans, Disney’s animated classic The Jungle Book is exactly that. Thus, when it was revealed that John Favreau was to lead the revamp brigade in the reimagining of Rudyard Kipling’s collection of short stories, many were already on the defensive. Could a ‘live action’ reboot recapture the magic that the original movie created so easily? Ironically, it did it in spite of it.
Favreau’s The Jungle Book opens to luscious CGI landscapes that provide us with a hyper-realistic environment that has been created to perfection. As the camera pans downwards we are introduced at a beat to a young boy in a red loincloth, bouncing through trees and meandering through flora. That boy in question is young Mowgli (Neel Sethi), the famous man cub rescued by Bagheera (the perfectly cast Ben Kingsley) and raised by wolves in the jungle. Unfortunately, Mowgli is threatened by a particular vindictive tiger, the fearsome Shere Kahn (Idris Elba) who seeks to kill Mowgli. Looking to protect his pack, Mowgli begrudgingly agrees that he must return to the man village in order to save himself and those he loves. However distractions and mishaps lay ahead, paving the way for very familiar characters and stories we do not need to remind you of.
The way in which this film succeeds is mainly down to the voice work, with almost every character fantastically cast in their individual roles. Idris Elba scares all ages, Bill Murray provides apt comic relief, and Christopher Walken is oddly accurate in his mobster-like portrayal of King Louis. Mowgli himself, played by Neel Sethi is impeccably well placed among the vibrant characters around him, even to the point where his mannerisms and movements almost mimic his cartoon counterpart. My only gripe was with Scarlett Johannson as Kaa the snake. Her seductive approach to the character felt too sultry for my liking, but that was not enough to shake my impression.
My main (and only) problem with The Jungle Book was the use of the songs. On the whole, I was grossly involved in the characters, and any moment in which Shere Khan held centre stage I was on edge. Yet I felt both ‘Bare Necessities’ and ‘I wanna be like you’ took me completely out of the film. To me they felt oddly out of place and disjointed away from everything else that was going on. The latter even more so, as Christopher Walken’s almost spoken word version of the classic song ‘I wanna be like you’ seemed completely mismatched with the dark and intimidating character. There’s no real surprise that Favreau included the songs in the film (as the uproar would have probably been greater if they were cut) but I felt they could have adapted them better. The whistling allure of ‘Bare Necessities’ in the trailer a good example of what they should have stuck with.
Shoe-horned nostalgia aside, there was little else to struggle with in The Jungle Book. What John Favreau has done is create a new and original adaptation that can easily stand side-by-side with its animated predecessor. Favreau is obviously a man with both great respect for Kipling and Disney, and that shines through in the meticulous care he has so obviously taken in every aspect of his creation. In a time where remakes and rehashes are so common, it’s hard to argue with that push when the output is this good.