I’m bad at seeing movies lately. I’ve turned it over to my drift partner, I guess.
The nice thing about Disney’s new trend of remaking all their classic animated movies is that (so far) they haven’t tried to redo any that I feel a particular fondness for. (Though Mulan is coming, god help us all.) I liked the 1967 Jungle Book as a kid, but it wasn’t one I watched religiously. I don’t even think I’ve seen it since I was a young teenager and I don’t remember most of the plot. But when the announcement for the 2016 Disney version came out, I was intrigued, mostly because of the cast. Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Ben Kingsley, and Lupita Nyong’o in the same movie? Sign me up! The early trailers also looked pretty good, and then the reviews were so overwhelmingly positive I decided maybe it was worth an opening weekend watch after all.
The thing is, I’ve gotten pretty good at picking out CGI, even really good CGI, from “real” special effects. So I knew going in that the film had been shot entirely on a soundstage in LA, which means basically all of the elements Mowgli (Neel Sethi) interacts with were created after the fact. And I can tell the animals are CGI, and some of the trees and branches Mowgli climbs on. The background sets, though? They’re indistinguishable from real sets. I was looking for elements that would give it away as CGI and I couldn’t find any. (Which isn’t to say that the animals don’t also look incredible, but it’s just a different look than if they’d, say, gotten a trained panther.) I almost wish I’d seen it in IMAX because the visuals are stunning – I know everyone is still talking about Avatar all these years later but I got the impression that that film was deliberately exaggerated and cartoonish, whereas Jungle Book’s sets feel absolutely real. And major kudos to Sethi, who had only acted in one short film prior to being cast, and is just as likeable and charming a hero as you could want. I’ve seen adult actors struggle to interact with CGI creatures and sets, and he does it beautifully. (Also, actually Indian, which is refreshing, since Disney doesn’t have the best track record for cultural sensitivity when adapting stories.)
I haven’t read the book, but I can only assume the plot is heavily influenced by it as opposed to the 1967 version. There’s some interesting mythology in the beginning, with the wolf pack’s mildly cult-ish chant about the ways of the wolf pack and the law of the jungle (there’s a joke Baloo gets about it which is funny in the moment but doesn’t make sense if you think about it), and the almost religious respect given to elephants. Elephants, you see, created the jungle, and to refuse to bow your head to them is a sign of total disrespect. That explanation comes early in the film, and there’s a great payoff to that later on. There’s also more exploration of Mowgli as a character: how he does and doesn’t fit in with his surrogate wolf family, and how his “tricks” (tools and machines) alarm the animals, who scold him that that is the way of man, not wolves. But not everyone objects to them; Baloo (Bill Murray) is a bit more like a con artist in this version, seizing upon Mowgli’s ingenuity and harnessing it to help him get honey from hard-to-reach beehives. The “tricks” are, of course, what ultimately save Mowgli and his friends in the end, when he must defeat Shere Khan (Idris Elba) with his brains rather than his fists. Shere Khan has an actual reason for targeting Mowgli, as well, as it turns out that Mowgli’s father defended himself and his son from Shere Khan and blinded the tiger in one eye with a torch. I don’t remember his motivations in the animated version, but I feel like they were probably flimsier.
And speaking of Shere Khan, I don’t think there was a better choice than Elba, who is compelling and menacing in turn. From what I can recall, the animated version made him a bit too preening to be as effective as he could be, but here, he’s genuinely intimidating. I think the PG rating helped, too – Shere Khan makes quick work of the alpha wolf, Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and while his death is offscreen, it doesn’t shy away from saying what happened either. Nearly all the voicework is impeccable: Murray as Baloo is both loveable and appropriately scheming, Kingsley is stern but paternal as Bagheera, Nyong’o may actually get the most emotional meat of the piece (and her character becomes the new alpha in the end, which was cool to see), and Johansson as Kaa is…well. Let me just say that I as an adult who finds her voice incredibly sexy was a bit uncomfortable in a theater full of children. (They also let her do a cover of “Trust In Me” that plays over the credits and I’ve certainly gained a new appreciation for the song.) The only real miscast, in my opinion, is Christopher Walken as King Louie, but even then he’s serviceable, when he’s not singing. Someone thought a half-sung rendition of “I Wan’na Be Like You” right at the point when Louie is supposed to be menacing Mowgli into working with him was a good idea. It wasn’t. (The other song in the movie proper is “The Bare Necessities,” which is fine because it’s just a scene of Baloo and Mowgli goofing off.) I also find it interesting that over half the cast is composed of actors of color, particularly because the story is set in India. It works very well, I think.
So as someone who is affably indifferent to the original Disney movie, I was very pleased with this one. It’s a more coherent, interesting story, and it’s beautiful to look at. I’m glad it’s taking off and I hope that the other live-action Disney remakes will try for the bar this one has set.