THERE ARE MANY people, myself included, for whom watching the classic Disney films––The Lion King, Bambi, and the original, animated The Jungle Book––represents some of the fondest memories of their childhood, which makes any attempt to do them over rather difficult, and sure to get a few people worked into a lather. First there’s the belief that some things are fine just as they are, but there is also a long list of remade or rebooted classics––Get Carter, Psycho, The Karate Kid––that failed to come anywhere close to the original in terms of quality. The Jungle Book has certain advantages: for instance, the huge technological developments that allow Bagheera, Baloo and the other inhabitants of the jungle to seem real in a way they never could be before.
Thanks to the enduring appeal of Rudyard Kipling’s collection and the continued popularity of the 1967 animated version of The Jungle Book, the story is familiar. A feral child, the ‘man-cub’ Mowgli, is raised in the Indian jungle in relative peace by a pack of wolves and with the occasional guidance of the wise panther Bagheera, until the return of the evil Bengal tiger Shere Khan threatens not only his safety, but the safety of all the creatures in the jungle.
The jungle is a real banquet for the eyes, and if you suspected that once you see the animals close-up and talking the illusion might be shattered, you’re dead-wrong.
You get the impression from the opening scene that the ability to combine live-action with CGI was made for films like these. Mowgli, impressively portrayed by the young Neel Sethi, runs with his pack of wolves through the jungle with barely even the slightest indication that most of what you see what created on a computer. The jungle is a real banquet for the eyes, and if you suspected that once you see the animals close-up and talking the illusion might be shattered, you’re dead-wrong.
The film has undoubted visual style, then, but it is palpably lacking in substance. The overwhelming impression you get of the film once it finishes is of Neel Sethi––who is excellent, by the way––charging through the jungle doing a sort of parkour. Most of the animal characters that are so lively and vivid in the books and the ’67 film never really appear to be more than cameos or extras because their scenes are so rushed. Scarlett Johansson and the character she voices, the hypnotic snake Kaa, is criminally underused after an excellent introduction. Bagheera (Sir Ben Kingsley), who also narrates the film, is convincing enough, but comedy takes the place of character development for the much-loved Baloo, played by Bill Murray. One of the best sequences of the film comes when Mowgli encounters King Louie––voiced with clear relish by Christopher Walken––and his small army of monkeys and apes, but ends frustratingly fast.
The biggest shame in The Jungle Book comes in the form of Shere Khan. What made Shere Khan so sinister in the ’67 version was his elegance and charm, conveyed so beautifully and so effectively through the animation and the cut-glass tones of George Sanders. (It is not a surprise, incidentally, that half a century later, Google’s first suggestion if you type ‘Shere Khan’ is ‘Shere Khan voice’.) In fact, Favreau and Marks’s take on Shere Khan is so overtly ‘bad’ that he becomes just another thuggish movie villain lacking any nuance or complexity and, therefore, any real menace. He only truly seems threatening when he’s telling stories to the young wolf clubs, and even then, it’s only due to a type of appeal to adult fear that has been done many, many times––and so much more menacingly––before. (Watch, for instance, the scene in Gladiator when Commodus tells a very similar story to Lucius while his mother, Lucilla, watches.)
Favreau and Marks’s take on Shere Khan is so overtly ‘bad’ that he becomes just another thuggish movie villain lacking any nuance or complexity and, therefore, any real menace.
Then there’s the music, which was such a key part of the ’67 film. Only two songs from the original appear, and both are wedged awkwardly and cynically into the film like crowd-pleasers. Both are sung badly.
Favreau, who also voices the the pygmy pig Fred, said he wished to strike a balance between the ’67 film that he himself used to watch and the underwhelming ’94 film, which had nothing in common with Kipling’s book anyway. The result is a film that, though visually breathtaking, occasionally funny and featuring an excellent acting performance at its centre, has neither the charm and joie-de-vivre of the animated classic nor the threat of the ’94 film or of Rudyard Kipling’s original tale. It’s worth seeing The Jungle Book just for the visuals, but it isn’t nearly as good Wolfgang Reitherman’s classic.