Past the Popcorn: The Jungle Book is Disney’s Latest Spiffy Retread


by Jeff Walls

Disney’s new live-action version of The Jungle Book says that it is based on the Mowgli stories written by Rudyard Kipling, but let’s be honest: it is really a remake of the company’s own animated version from 1967.  For the most part, it has the same characters—no more, no less—and follows a similar path through scenes that will seem very familiar to fans of the animated film.  The movie is enjoyable, for sure, but mostly in the way it makes you nostalgic for the movie and characters you grew up with, rather than for being anything special or unique in its own right.

Where the movie most differs from its predecessor is its opening act.  Instead of beginning with the panther Bagheera finding an abandoned human baby, the movie opens with Mowgli already grown as much as he is going to be in the film.  Instead of just the spoken threat of the tiger Shere Khan, Khan is introduced very early and threatens the life of all the wolves should they not turn the man-cub over to him.

the-jungle-book-insetBagheera volunteers to take Mowgli to the man village, but once they get separated Mowgli finds himself meeting all sorts of different jungle creatures.  Most notable among these is the bear Baloo, who recruits Mowgli to help him gather the food he needs to survive the winter.  The pair develops a great friendship as Baloo teaches Mowgli about the bare necessities of life.

You get the idea while watching The Jungle Book that the suits in charge at Disney strongly encouraged, if not insisted, to director Jon Favreau that certain elements from the animated film be recreated in the live-action version.  The most obvious of these is the inclusion of the songs “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You.”  The former works well, fitting fairly naturally into this version, but the latter feels forced.  Whereas it was a big jazzy centerpiece in the animated movie, “I Wanna Be Like You” is sung quietly by a sitting King Louie with no excitement whatsoever.  There is a much more exciting version of the song in the closing credits and that is probably where they should have left it.

The highlight of this version is easily the visuals.  This is a stunning-looking movie with wonderfully-rendered jungle scenery.  It is almost entirely computer-generated as the entire movie was filmed in the concrete jungle of Los Angeles, but that works because the movie never tries to be anything but the fantasy that it is.  The animals also look wonderful.  Like the scenery, they are realistically rendered, but not to the point that they look fake when they start speaking English.

The voice actors are hit and miss.  Idris Elba is terrific and terrifying as Shere Kahn, and Scarlett Johansson’s deep, seductive voice is perfect for that of Kaa the snake.  Maybe it is just because it is impossible not to compare him to the work in the original of the great Phil Harris, but Bill Murray comes across as a little too laconic as Baloo.  Still, his rendition of “The Bare Necessities” with young Neel Sethi is an enjoyable alternative version of the classic song.

The Jungle Book is enjoyable from start to finish and it is fun to see some of our favorite animated characters come to life, but like last year’s Cinderella there just is not enough new about it for it to be much more than live-action trip down nostalgia lane.  It will be interesting to see how the same Rudyard Kipling material is treated by Andy Serkis when his version hits in 2018.

The Jungle Book opens today at the Century Federal Way, the AMC Kent Station 14, and the AMC Southcenter 16. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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