Pointless remakes are frequently the bane of the seasoned cinemagoer; especially when such remakes are either 1) terrible or 2) add little or nothing to the original. In the case of The Jungle Book, there are a few previous adaptations of interest, most notably the 1942 Zoltan Korda live action take, an intriguing product of it’s time, and more obviously the 1967 animated Disney version. Technically Jon Favreau’s new version is also an animated Disney version, given that most of the film is digitally created. At any rate, I am pleased to report it is a pleasingly satisfying concoction for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Favreau treats not only Rudyard Kipling’s original as source material, but also the 1967 version. This is a highly shrewd move, given the place that film has in the affections of many. Taking this approach allows Favreau to not only put his own spin on the tale, but also enables him to cleverly work in some of the elements that made the 1967 film so memorable, including key songs. However, this version of The Jungle Book is not a musical, but more an out-and-out adventure story.
The familiar tale of abandoned man-cub Mowgli, raised by wolves, who becomes increasingly endangered by vengeful tiger Shere Khan, hardly needs reiterating here. However, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks make clever choices in terms of where they return to Kipling’s text and where they borrow from the 1967 version. For example, the wolf pack plays a much greater part here, including the recitation of the Law of the Jungle, and their dealings with Shere Khan. Elephant buffoonery is also eschewed in favour of something more awe-inspiring, and the finale of the 1967 version (with Mowgli following the girl into the village, a concept Walt himself came up with) is eliminated entirely.
Yet in other places, the film wisely follows the 1967 film, especially in terms of Mowgli relationships with Bagheera and Baloo, and the use of songs such as Bare Necessities. Speaking of songs, when King Louie is introduced, his appearance brings to mind Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, before he sings an altogether more alarming version of I wanna be like you, then finally chasing Mowgli through the ruined city in a sequence that both pays homage to the 1967 version, and also stands on it’s own two feet as a much more frightening take.
Not that this is too frightening. Although Favreau restores some of the darker edges of Kipling, he still keeps things the right side of family friendly. His direction, incidentally, is spot-on. The opening Disney logo seamlessly moves into a jungle setting akin to the 1967 version (complete with the music from the ’67 opening titles) in a single shot, immediately signalling to the audience that the story is in safe hands. The first sight of Shere Khan is also brilliantly realised, appearing with the glare of the sun behind him, and other key characters are introduced just as memorably.
Newcomer Neel Sethi makes a good impression as Mowgli, and the supporting vocal cast is great too. Bill Murray (Baloo), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera), Idris Elba (Shere Khan), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa), Lupita Nyong’o (Raksha), Giancarlo Esposito (Akela) and Christopher Walken (King Louie) all provide brilliant versions of their respective characters. It hardly needs saying that the visual effects are superb; live-action realistic, yet also with that slightly heightened fantasy edge that allows for suspension of disbelief. John Debney also contributes a fine score that blends well with what has been borrowed from 1967.
In short, The Jungle Book is a rare case where the remake was genuinely justified. Not only does it compliment the beloved 1967 take, it also stands alone as a terrific film for all ages.