Back in 1960s, Disney’s animations seemed to be able to do no wrong. Fresh off Disney’s 50s golden age, the company entered a new decade strong, with timeless features, including 101 Dalmatians, Sword in the Stone and last but certainly not least The Jungle Book. The last Disney film that Walt Disney produced before his untimely death was received with critical acclaim and was a huge hit amongst kids and families altogether, paving the way for an unfortunately less successful sequel. Now, at a time when so many Disney classics are getting the live action remake treatment, it was just a matter of time before The Jungle Book was down for the count, and so alas, almost fifty years after the original, Jon Favreau enlists an all star cast including Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba and Lupita Nyong’o amongst many others, as well as newcomer Neel Sethi as the ‘man cub’, Mowgli, who is raised in the jungle by a pack of wolves.
All these Disney live action recreations of the originals are received differently (think Maleficent or Cinderella) but one thing they all have in common is they attempt, to an extent, to bring their own twist to a familiar tale. This is the case for The Jungle Book as well. The main story arc follows the original closely, where Mowgli, threatened by the tiger Shere Khan (Elba), flees the jungle in search of the human village, the only place where he’ll be safe, accompanied along the way by his mentor, the panther Bagheera (Kingsley), and his companion Baloo the bear (Murray). However, a number of new encounters happen along the journey, differing from the original tale and, most importantly, an origin story is provided for Mowgli explaining how he was adopted by the jungle, in addition to a radically different ending. In general, these changes are welcome since they make the movie still feel like a remake of the original. Also important to remark is the fact that this adaptation, unlike the original, is not a musical, although a couple of the most well known songs from the original are recreated in an interesting way that I don’t want to spoil, but it feels very natural and organic in the context of the film.
Going back to the 1967 version, when the animated film was initially in production, it featured very close elements to the Kipling novel which the movie was based on, giving it a slightly darker and ominous tone. Disney didn’t think this was family friendly enough, so much of the creative team was replaced and re shuffled until they came up with a completely family-friendly formula. This worked wonders for Disney at the time but the newest reincarnation seems to stick more to that original intent of making a slightly grittier film. Not to say this film is not accessible to kids; it very much is, but at times proves chilling and terrifying, which makes not only for a more fleshed-out film but is also a very smart marketing move, increasing the demographic of the film to not simply be restricted to kid audiences.
Now to address the elephant in the room: the cinematography. The film, set in the Indian jungle, was filmed entirely on a set in LA, using almost entirely CGI and a scattering of set pieces. Usually, this can result in a big mess of a movie (looking at you, Transformers). However, here, the cinematography is astonishing. The CGI and motion capture work together brilliantly to create vivid and ultra realistic animals (which is a strange phrase considering almost every animal in the movie speaks fluent English). It seems clear that the animators had a vast understanding of the things they were animating. Several times during the movie you forget it’s even pixels you are looking at, and you forget that the actors are only lending their voice to the role. The backdrops are always vivid, the colors astonishing and it truly is some of the best technical work any movie has had in recent years. On top of this, one must also appreciate Favreau’s directorial work and imagination for setting these shots, with wide takes that really accentuate the stunning computerized scenery.
Will this movie be looked at in fifty years the same way we look at the original Jungle Book or even other Disney classics like Lion King (which this borrows heavily from)? Certainly not, but that is not the point either. The movie does not create a completely new formula for Disney, nor are any of the characters any more memorable than they were after 1967- not to say the voice acting is not incredible, it is, particularly Bill Murray and Idris Elba- but it does breathe life into one of the most forgotten and, in my opinion, underrated Disney films, and reinvigorates it for the new generation, as well as allowing older audiences to reconnect with the classic. The way the film weaves old elements of its story together with a revisited plot and astounding CGI work really sets it apart from other Disney live action recreations, and this is the strongest part of the work.
A truly successful remake in its essence The Jungle Book manages to stand out as a unique achievement in Disney’s recent filmography.
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