Remake worth attention | The Jungle Book

MARCO ATTARD • The film excels on a simply astonishing level, as both its various creatures and the jungle they inhabit represent a new standard for the craft of special effects

3 May 2016, 8:53am
Bear Necessities: Mowgli (Neel Sethi) hangs out with Baloo (Bill Murray) in Jon Favreu's remake of the 1967 Disney animated classic
Bear Necessities: Mowgli (Neel Sethi) hangs out with Baloo (Bill Murray) in Jon Favreu's remake of the 1967 Disney animated classic
For anyone who follows the movie industry’s ongoings, sometimes it feels like just about every film in existence is on the way to getting remade. This time around it’s the turn of The Jungle Book – specifically the much loved 1967 Disney animated version. Does director Jon Favreau and Disney’s current crop of computer-aided animators do the classic justice, or does is it yet another lazy, cynical cash-grab? The answer might surprise you, just as it surprised this critic...

You see, the “original” Disney Jungle Book is very close and dear to my heart. It was one of the films that would be inevitably shown on any childhood occasion (such as a birthday or a holy communion party) deemed worthy for the dragging out of the 8mm projector, and as such it was one of the reasons behind a lifelong love affair not only with the art of animation, but cinema as a whole. No wonder that I not so much ignored the news of the live action remake as I did block it near entirely out of memory, at least until positive critical buzz insisted it was worthy of attention. And, long story short, it is exactly that. This remade Jungle Book might be the result of studio executives demands to further squeeze the more nostalgic segments of the market, but, long story short, it still manages to be a genuinely good film, one that’s thrilling and charming in equal measure.

The all too loose adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling book remains familiar – found stranded in the jungle by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), the “man-cub” Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is handed over to the wolves, who raise him as one of their own until he is forced to leave the pack following threat of death by the tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba). As Mowgli traverses the lush Indian jungle a number of animal characters both friendly and dangerous are met, including Kaa the python (Scarlett Johansson), Louie the king of the apes (Christopher Walken) and Baloo the bear (Bill Murray). Eventually Mowgli is forced to make a decision – will he escape to the safety of the man village or face the fearsome Shere Khan?

Of course, the success of such a story on film rests entirely on the strength of its animal cast. Not simply the voice cast – which is wholly stellar, and I’ll get to in a bit – but in the way it’s portrayed on a visual level. Here the film excels on a simply astonishing level, as both its various creatures and the jungle they inhabit represent a new standard for the craft of special effects. In fact, the only “real” element in the film is Mowgli himself, a performance by 10-year-old actor Neel Sethi worthy of all manner of plaudits, considering all filming was done in front of a blue screen in a Los Angeles warehouse.

The combination of real boy and computer generated-magic is wholly convincing, even more so when Favreu has (digital) mud and rain splatter on his camera as it follows Mowgli in an exciting series of chases through the jungle in what feels like a less chilly and more exciting version of overly prolonged Leonardo Di Caprio crawl-fest The Revenant. However it’s the animal characters that truly steal the show. They come in shapes and sizes ranging from tiny jerboas to gigantic elephants, and are all modelled and animated with a rare attention to both detail and, even more importantly, charm (my favourites are the squirrel, pangolin and peccary that appear hanging around Baloo when he’s first introduced).

Further adding to the animals’ charm is the voice cast. Ben Kingsley lends an air of nobility and grace to Bagheera, Idris Elba’s Shere Khan simmers with menace matching the tiger’s fearsome frame, Scarlett Johanssen transforms what was a bumbling serpent into something far more breathily seductive and Bill Murray is outright perfect as the wistful Baloo. Also worthy of mention is, of course, Christopher Walken’s King Louie, here turned into an immense, sinister figure that’s like a shaggy, orange King Kong – sorry, “Gigantopithecus”, as he insists multiple times in a reworking of the song “I wanna be like you.”

So, one might ask, which version of The Jungle Book is the better one? Answering such a question might be a bit of a mug’s game, but although I’d choose the 1967 version and its lively xerographed animation, the quality of this new version is nothing short of a miracle, even more so considering it ultimately remains the result of a cynical effort in remaking the entire Disney canon in live action. Oh, and stick around until the credits – that’s when the aforementioned squirrel, pangolin and peccary trio truly gets to shine.