Like an Amish Philistine, I have been one of those people that have derided the overuse of computer generated effects in modern live action movies. I guess I’m beginning to sound like that crotched old man harping on about the good old days when a cinema ticket only cost three pounds and came in two dimensions. Whilst it is true that digital effects have been greatly asset for film makers, it is when they get used as a crutch that everything begins to fall apart. The Star Wars prequels are the classic example, a bunch of terribly written movies shot almost completely in green screen with nearly everything added in post production, everything except the magic of course. And yet here we are with Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, a movie shot mostly on green screen with a vast cast of talking animals that wouldn’t have been possible without computer animation.
When they haven’t been rebooting the Star Wars universe or financing large interconnected cinematic universes, the house of mouse have been the raiding the old vintage reserves, remaking and reappropriating all their animated classics for a modern 3D Imax audience. Thus far these remakes haven’t really made a great impression on me personally, there’s just been some off about them all. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland made a bunch of money but was all over the place in terms of visuals. Maleficent tried to do something new by retelling the Sleeping Beauty fairytale from the perspective of it’s iconic villain but again ultimately lost it’s intriguing premise in all these dizzying flybys through enchanted forests and the uncanny valley. I had no other reason to expect the Jungle Book would be more of the same. A glossy big budget update of the classic schtick but nowhere near approaching the timeless brilliance of the original animation.
How wrong I was.
At this point, Disney’s Jungle Book has superseded Rudyard Kipling’s original short stories in cultural relevance. I mean they tried to do a more swashbuckling live action version in the 90s, but let’s face it Disney’s 1967 animation will always be the definitive version. For this reason, one does not simply remake Disney’s version of the Jungle Book. You’d perhaps be better off doing a direct adaptation of Kipling’s stories, which consequently is exactly what Andy Serkis is doing with his 2018 directorial debut Jungle Book: Origins.
This latest incarnation of The Jungle Book doesn’t stray too far from the watering hole. Mowgli is the man cub (played by newcomer Neel Sethi), orphaned as a baby but raised by a pack of wolves and mentored by a panther known as Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). As Mowgli grows older, his presence complicates the natural order of the jungle and when the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) comes hunting for him, Mowgli is forced to leave his wolf family and rejoin the village of men – where the animalcollective judges is his natural place. The movie then becomes a jungle odyssey, in which Mowgli meets an array of colourful characters, a giant snake called Kaa (Scarlet Johansson), a carefree bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and monkey monarch King Louie (Christopher Walken). Each character colours his decision to re-enter the world of man, all the while Shere Khan closes in for the kill.
This latest version of The Jungle Book is being sold to us as the live action version of Disney’s 1967 animated classic, but really, it is no less an animated feature than the original, such is the extent of wizardry of the computer effects. Talking animals are not always the easiest thing to do but the large menagerie of a cast all wonderfully capture the soul of the characters and actors playing them but also coloured by all the small behavioural traits you would expect from a wildlife documentary.
It won’t be long until Disney decide to remake the Lion King in a similar style. Indeed, one teasing shot in the Jungle Book shows a meerkat and warthog standing next to one another. Nothing is sacred anymore! But y’know Hakuna matata and all that. If they apply the same kind of treatment as they’ve done with the Jungle Book, that other Disney classic could be spectacular again too.
Then there is the jungle terrain itself, vast, lush and green with its own kind of poetry. Though there are plenty of scenes in which Mowgli run and jumps through the trees through a series of fast edits, there are just enough shots that linger at a slower pace which allows the audience to just take it all in. There is a level of immersion within the movie’s environments that is reminiscent of the ways James Cameron’s Avatar absorbed viewers into the alien rainforests of Pandora. Everything just feels alive, like a jungle should do, like the jungle book should do.
The only ‘real’ thing in The Jungle Book for definite is the kid actor playing Mowgli. As Mowgli, Neel Sethi anchors most of the movie with a strong performance that works well with all the computer generated characters. Extraordinary when you consider he probably had nothing to act against and this is his first acting role. For the most version it’s as if the animated version of Mowgli walked off the screen.
The Jungle Book is also anchored by a seasoned well judged cast, which give each of the creatures a degree of gravitas. As Bagheera, Ben Kingsley comes across as uptight, wise and paternal, playing the role with a touch of grace, as the character dictates – believing he knows what’s best for Mowgli. We then have the first instance of ingenius casting with Bill Murray as Baloo, his naturally dry wit and carefree yet somewhat selfish attitude come to embody the role perfectly. The same could probably be said of his role in Garfield too, but let’s just forget about that for now. Baloo sees an opportunity with Mowgli but quickly becomes a friend and something of a conscience as the man cub thinks seriously about his place in life. Murray is frequently hilarious but also moving in places. His rendition of the Bear Necessities is pitch perfect, half singing but mostly joyfully crooning his way through the lyrics in a style that is just pure Murray.
In the second instance of ingenius casting, you have Christopher Walken as King Louie. If the prospect of Christopher Walken singing ‘I wanna be like you’ as a giant ape (or gigantopithecus) doesn’t justify the price of admission then nothing will quite frankly. Of course Walken plays him with his own wacky voice, but I wasn’t expecting King Louie to have shades of Walken’s more menacing characters from the likes of True Romance and the King of New York. When you put it next to the sheer size of King Louie, this actually turns out to be quite terrifying in ways the original cartoon wasn’t.
I suppose one of the problems is that the scene in which King Louie appears does seem a little fleeting within the context of the story. The same could also be said of Scarlett Johansson’s turn as the snake Kaa. It’s only because they were both such a huge part of the original that they must be in this version. Fortunately if you stay through the credits, you will get to hear Johansson’s sing ‘Trust in Me’ is a very sultry fashion.
The other thing that didn’t quite work for me was Idris Elba as Shere Khan. I fully accept that this version of Khan is a different beast to the suave big chinned version of the original. They give Kahn his own backstory, which makes the character somewhat sympathetic and all the more scarier. Half of his face has been burnt by fire, which has given him this kind of Ahab monomania, where he will stop at nothing to destroy Mowgli. This version of Khan is a leaner more savage version, he has to run and leap upon trees and basically take part in all the theatrics a modern action scene demands. Therefore his voice needs to be more dynamic and full of rage. The tiger is certainly something to be afraid of, his interactions with the wolves in particular created a tension I didn’t expect from a Disney movie. However, the more Shere Kahn talks the more it sounds as if this tiger came from Hackney, and it did take me out of the movie.
Finally, music was a major touchstone of the original animation featuring some of Disney’s most beloved songs. Favreau’s version isn’t implicitly a musical but the music continues to be a big part of the experience. There are enough of the smaller cues from the original movie, that the eagle eared (that doesn’t sound right) listener will instantly relish in recognising. The songs themselves, from the Bear Necessities, I wanna be like you and Trust In me reminded me of George Martin’s In My Life LP, in which he got several famous actors like Jim Carrey, Robin Williams and Sean Connery to do covers of old Beatles classics. Each song was performed in a style that was fitting of each of the performers, they each put their own stamp on it, which is essentially what is happening with the classic Jungle Book songs.
The melody of Bear Necessities itself is transformed into this powerful joyous orchestral refrain backed by mighty jungle drums and it’s impossible not to be swept away by it all and feel uplifted.
Suffice it to say, Favreau’s Jungle Book has fun with the old music just as it does with the old movie itself. Ultimately, I think this is it. Favreau’s version just has fun with the property and it’s legacy, which in the end is exactly what the bear necessities has taught us all these years.
One does not simply go back and remake The Jungle Book. I will always favour the original cartoon of course, but Jon Favreau has made an excellent version that both contains the essence of the old classic but also stands on its own as an effective coming of age tale with a large dollop of environmental responsibility woven into the messaging. At times, this Jungle Book is a darker and scarier version of the story, but this just makes the movie all the more enticing and profound. In the end, I came out of the cinema both remembering the greatness of the old animation but reinvigorated by what I had just seen in the latest instalment. It was if the present was having a direct communication with the past and both were in agreement.
Recommended Viewing: TALKING ANIMAL MOVIES
Just typed Babe into a google image search. Had to scroll quite far to find this image of the talking pig…
Homeward Bound 1993
I just… got something in my eye that’s all.
Shaggy Dog 2006
I probably shouldn’t recommend this movie, but one scene has Robert Downey Jnr acting as a dog. So there’s that. Makes for a great trailer. Who did let the dogs out by the way?