In 1963, after the release of The Sword in the Stone, Walt Disney embarked on what would be the last film conceived under his leadership — the ceaselessly fun and one-of-a-kind The Jungle Book. The original treatments for the film closely mirrored the dark tone of the Rudyard Kipling novels upon which it was based, but Disney believed that this interpretation would be far too serious for his predominately young viewership. Despite a falling out with storyman Bill Peet, what resulted is one of the most beloved and highest grossing animated films of all time.
Remaking a film with so much history, and with a fan base five decades in the making, is an enormous strain for a director (the shift from cartoon to live action not withstanding). Yet John Favreau’s modern retelling of this 100-year-old story feels as fresh and vibrant as ever. Blending Disney’s colorful musical cartoon with Kipling’s tales of morality, Favreau paints (with what must have been a hoard of computer graphics artists) The Jungle Book as a lively adventure had by a free-spirited boy looking for nothing more than his place in a world he can not even begin to comprehend.
Set to a jaunty score immediately reminiscent of its 1967 forefather, the film opens on a flash of jungle and a blur of animalian movement. While the camera, and, in turn, our eyes, have trouble adjusting to this rate of speed, the pace of the film is unquestionably set. The blur is Mowgli (Neel Sethi), and his reason for running is Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). The film quickly introduces us to the familiar faces of Jungle Books past (Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha, Giancarlo Esposito as Akela, and a menacing Idris Elba as Shere Khan) while showing off just how far CGI has come. New faces amongst the fauna are given silly voices to accompany their strikingly-real animation, and sweeping shots over a river valley will undoubtedly impress parents while a porcupine (voiced by the late Garry Shandling) exists only to delight the young viewers amongst the crowd.
In this way, Favreau’s Jungle Book feels very beholden to a diverse set of masters; Christopher Walken and Bill Murray as King Louie and Baloo, respectively, serve as a comically fascinating inclusion for aging fans, while a seductive, Scarlett Johansson-voiced Kaa and action-intensive chase scenes come off as leaning heavily towards the Marvel crowd. It is clear that Favreau’s big-budget film needs to make back its $175 million budget, but it is equally apparent that he labored just as hard to make something good. Unlike many other Disney films, there doesn’t need to be sly adult-jokes implanted amongst the slapstick and silliness to keep parents on their toes. They already know and love this story, so their focus is on whether or not this version is going to screw anything up. Can Walken replace Louis Prima? Will Murray somehow best Phil Harris? Shortly into The Jungle Book, we realize that these are meaningless questions, and that Favreau’s version is a unique entity built alongside, rather than on top of, the 1967 classic.
The transition from a cartoon into live action and CGI augments more than the face of The Jungle Book, it changes the entire character of the film. Not only does the reimagined jungle truly pop under the realistic density of every leaf and vine, but the characters, too, become weighted under the gravity of their eerily-lifelike presence. King Louie is no longer a scroungy jungle orangutan, he is a menacing beast, made many times larger than his diminutive cartoon counterpart. The once affable, albeit selfish, Kaa is transformed from skinny, lisping schemer into a terrifying serpent; no longer a physically unimposing charmer, this snake could give the mighty Basilisk a run for its money.
The Jungle Book is a fun, brisk and absolutely gorgeous achievement that honors the past while looking unflinchingly into the future. Favreau’s version might be tuned to the sensibilities of a generation raised on comic book films and whirlwind action adventures, but it never takes away from the impact of the experience. A plethora of winking hints (and perhaps even a friendly nod toward Andy Serkis’ 2018 origins story) bond with strong lessons in morality to make The Jungle Book of 2016 something worth celebrating.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.