Among the films in Walt Disney Animation Studio’s official canon, no film confounds me quite like The Jungle Book. It’s not the worst film the studio has released, but it’s definitely a product of one of the studio’s weakest periods of time, where the storytelling as lazy as the use of recycled animation (seriously, watch the new Honest Trailers video for just some of the recycled animation within the film). What confounds me is how, in spite of this, the film is generally grouped with the titles in their library that are among their finest. These are the ones that get released as part of their premiere home video formats, for example. In a list of films that were released as part of Disney’s Diamond Edition line, for example, it stands out as the sore thumb of the group. With that in mind, with Disney’s apparent desire to remake many of their animated classics as live action films, The Jungle Book stood to improve in a way films like Maleficent and Cinderella weren’t quite able to accomplish.
And thankfully, The Jungle Book isn’t just a solid improvement; it’s an unequivocally superb example of what Disney can accomplish when they choose the right films to remake.
The core of the story should feel familiar to audiences who grew up with the 1967 film. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) has grown up in the jungles of India under the supervision of wolves, led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), after being rescued as an infant by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). When Shere Khan (Idris Elba) discovers Mowgli, though, he makes it known he wants to kill Mowgli, forcing Mowgli to return to Man’s World with Bagheera’s help. On his way back, though, Mowgli encounters different animals who want him for their own varied reasons.
So yes, a lot of that should feel familiar. Outside of fleshing out Mowgli’s relationship with the wolves with a lot more detail, the first two-thirds of the film shares a lot in common with its animated predecessor. What changes, though, is the tone of the film. In the earlier film, only Shere Khan feels truly villainous, and even that is a bit of a stretch. Here, Khan, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and King Louie (Christopher Walken) are all not only dangerous, but clearly defined as being dangerous in distinct ways. Elba imbues Khan with an ever-present sense of menace, Johansson brings a seductive and husky tone to Kaa, and Walken makes King Louie seem unhinged in a dangerous way.
Mowgli also, of course, encounters Baloo, and Bill Murray makes him as charming as he is in the cartoon while also making him a clear con artist. Like in 1967’s film, the scenes shared by Mowgli and Baloo are sheerly delightful. They even manage to make the inclusion of “The Bare Necessities” work in the context of this film, which was pleasantly surprising.
The Jungle Book does make a very clear break from both the previous Disney film and the original stories by Rudyard Kipling in its third act, though, and it’s what catapults the story of the film from “good” to “great.” Fair warning: this involves spoilers about all three versions of the story. In the original story, Mowgli embraces fire as a weapon, and in doing so clearly marks himself as a “man.” The 1967 film has the fire come from a lightning strike, with Mowgli tying burning branches to Shere Khan’s tail to drive him away. Mowgli then heads to the village, where he finally leaves the forest. For 2016’s version, Mowgli once again uses fire as a weapon, and he asserts his dominance. But. He’s challenged by Shere Khan on this, and Mowgli becomes aware that the other animals around him now fear him. He makes a conscious decision to reject this power, reasserting himself as a member of the wolf pack, and the film ends with Mowgli still in the jungle. It’s a huge shift, and one that feels like a refutation of the old idea of man dominating other species.
As great as the story is, it helps that it looks phenomenal. Obviously, the film uses CGI, but by crafting the film on soundstages with greenscreens, director Jon Favreau has managed to create a jungle that looks lifelike, but stylized just enough to make the talking animals that populate the film feel natural. The animals themselves also look lifelike, but with just enough heightened reality to make the fact that they’re talking not seem like they’re in the uncanny valley. And I should note: this is the rare film to make excellent use of 3D. Between that and its full running time in IMAX’s aspect ratio, seeing the film in that format is a no-brainer.
Obviously, Disney wants to continue adapting their animated classics for live action features. This year alone, we’re also getting Alice Through the Looking Glass and Pete’s Dragon as additions to this series. What The Jungle Book shows is that there’s a way to do this where the films actually improve on what’s been done, rather than seem like a greedy cash grab involving intellectual property. This was an unexpected delight, and quite frankly, Warner Bros. and Andy Serkis may want to consider shutting down their own version that they’re creating. It seems fated to pale by comparison.