Disney's mission to remake every animated film in their back catalogue continues with Jon Faverau's re-imagining of The Jungle Book; but does the film deliver enough to make the revisit worthwhile?
Chances are you already know the story of The Jungle Book, but for those that don't, here is a brief synopsis; Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a man-cub who lives deep in the Indian jungle amongst a pack of fierce wolves lead by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Luptia N'yongo). Found abandoned by a wise old panther called Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) as a toddler, Mowgli has lived his entire life amongst the wolves, learning their ways and respecting the law of the jungle under their tutelage.
However, this status quo is interrupted when fearsome Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) returns. His hatred of humans unwavering, Shere Khan vows to kill Mowgli, and in order to protect their 'cub', the wolves agree that Bagheera should escort Mowgli out of the jungle and back to his people in the man village.
Many of us have grown up with Disney's original 1967 animated Jungle Book classic, but this new film does enough to distinguish itself as not just a remake of that film, but also a loyal adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's original novels. Faverau's re-imagining utilises concepts and ideas from the books that serve this new film well, providing the opening act with greater depth and a broader sense of the jungle community in which Mowgli has grown up in. Justin Marks' screenplay is surprisingly good - he takes a well-worn story and breathes new life into it, dispensing with sections of the animated film that didn't work and introducing elements that make the whole film tie together better. It's actually a stark improvement over the rather episodic original.
From a film-making perspective, The Jungle Book sets an interesting precedent; rather than flying an entire crew out to India to shoot on location, Faverau and his team filmed the entire movie on a sound stage in Los Angeles. Every tree, rock, blade of grass and animal is rendered in CGI, with Mowgli himself, Neel Sethi, being the only sole live-action performance.
It's a really hard concept to wrap your head around at first; not just because the sensation of seeing Ben Kingsley's voice emanating from a CGI panther is hard to get used to, but also because the CGI itself is so detailed, lush and convincing that it fools you into thinking it's real. There were a handful of moments where the environment look or felt a little weightless and intangible, but for the most part the crew at Weta have done a bang-up job of melding live action and computer animation in a way that works.
The next challenge that this approach is faced with is the perception of soul; you can make the environment look gorgeous, but without depth and characters, the digitized world would feel oddly empty and bland.
Thankfully, the non-human characters are all wonderful; Bill Murray is a hoot as bumbling bear Baloo whilst Kingsley is a stand-out as the eternally-patient Bagheera. Elba's throaty voice work makes Shere Khan an imposing presence whilst Lupita N'yongo's motherly Raksha plays a much more pivotal role in this updated version.
Whilst I hate to admit it, the only weak link in the cast is Sethi. Child actors can be uneven at the best of times, so it's hard to hate on Sethi considering the vast expanse of green screen he would've been surrounded by. Still, I have to call it as I see it - his delivery and eye lines were a little inconsistent, but at the end of the day, you have give credit where credit is due. Few actors have been placed in his situation at such a young age and he did a serviceable job all things considered.
My main issue with the film is the tone; the film feels almost obligated to include the core show tunes like 'Bare Necessities' and 'I Wanna Be Like You' even though they sit awkwardly alongside the rest of the film. Faverau and Marks have done such a great job of building this environment and filling it with compelling myths that a giant singing orangutan feels odd, especially when this scene is followed by a rather frightening chase sequence for kids of a certain age. The climactic scene is also really heavy-handed for kids - I know that this has been a Disney hallmark for ages, but something about seeing Shere Khan in the flesh (or fur) is different to drawings. I'm not sure I'd take a 6-year-old to see this - but I'm not a parent, so what do I know.
The Verdict: 8/10
Disney's revamped The Jungle Book gives audiences more than just the bare necessities; it certainly doesn't reinvent the wheel, but Faverau and co. have injected a well-worn tale with an interesting new take and striking visual trickery.
The Jungle Book is in cinemas across Australia now.