I’ve been pretty upfront about where I stand with Disney’s recent string of live-action remakes based on their classic animated films. Starting with Alice and Wonderland and reaching all the way to last year’s Cinderella, Disney has been all over the place on what these remakes can be for modern audiences.
Sadly, none of them have been very impressive.
Alice and Wonderland (2010) tried to be a sequel, growing up Alice and telling new tales in Wonderland. This worked well and is attributed to the film’s success, but it never reached the same level of imagination as the original, perhaps because it borrowed so much from it.
Maleficent presented a clever twist on the source material of Sleeping Beauty by telling the villain’s side of the story. But even though they made Maleficent herself a more dimensional character, they also resorted to making Aurora’s father a cartoonish villain, instead.
Cinderella simply retold its original story beat for beat, and some of it was a welcome refresh to the material. Prince Charming was given a clear set of motivations, the evil stepmother was slightly more compelling, and less of the film dwelled on mischievous mice. But Cinderella herself lost a lot of her agency in this film, always moping under the words of her dying mother to just take the problems that happen to her with a smile and do nothing about them.
So going into The Jungle Book, I didn’t know what to expect, aside from all indications that Disney was continuing the trend they started with Cinderella by telling the same story with updated visuals and a little more character development that would range from good to bad.
For that reason, The Jungle Book surprised me. A lot.
Like its 1967 predecessor, The Jungle Book of 2016 is far from perfect. But also like the animated film that inspired it, it’s a movie that lives up to the visual standards of its day, delivers a moving soundtrack, and offers up a serviceable story.
Does that mean the 2016 remake won’t age well, either? Visually, that’s hard to say for now, but I think most will agree that The Jungle Book is a vast improvement compared to the original, mistakes and all.
Much of its imagery and even some character development is ripped straight from Lion King (and it’s utterly noticeable by the third act). Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, is fine overall, but at times he sounds more like an American kid in one of those old Walt Disney TV shows than someone who grew up in the wilderness. And while the decision to mostly remove the song and dance numbers was on the mark, a bizarrely placed scene involving King Louie is somehow still in the film, and it’s just bad.
But mostly everything else in The Jungle Book ranges everywhere from excellent to solid. The voice casting, for one thing, is probably perfect. Idris Elba was born to voice Shere Kan, and the same goes for Bill Murray and Baloo. Scarlett Johansson is clearly having fun during her brief time as Kaa (seriously, there’s not enough of this character), and Lupita Nyong’o is just perfect as Mowgli’s wolf mother, Raksha.
The visuals, too, are masterful, and that’s coming from someone who almost never opts to see films in 3D. This is actually one of those movies that benefits greatly from the increased depth that 3D provides, and you can quickly see from the opening visuals that Disney is starting to have a lot more fun with transitions and one-takes.
Even the pacing is quite good, as I never had to wonder where these characters and set pieces existed amongst each other. And a lot of these said set pieces get chaotic in a hurry, so I can see why Jon Favreau (Iron Man) was tapped for director. Though Mowgli is in a constant state of peril in some scenes, the audience is able to keep up very easily.
Most importantly, the characters have more interesting things to do and say this time around. Even Mowgli, a character I couldn’t stand in the original, has an affecting narrative here that feels truer to Rudyard Kipling’s original vision for the books.
The friendship between Baloo and Mowgli is also more believable, rather than speedy, and you get a better sense for why everyone takes this “mancub” so seriously. Yes, we have another “special snowflake” character, but the movie does a great job explaining why Mowgli’s future in the jungle is cause for concern, hope, and debate.
Inserting things like politics, peace treaties, and even a loose caste system into a movie about talking animals in the jungle sounds like a terrible idea on paper. But The Jungle Book uses these details to bring its CGI creatures to life in ways beyond the visuals. Everyone has a distinct motivation. No one just does something for the sake of it. You can actually suspend your disbelief for a couple of hours and believe that this jungle in India is the actual place where these characters live.
To be fair, I never cared much for the original Jungle Book in 1967. But all of my issues with that film, even as a kid, are pretty much nonexistent in this remake, which is better in nearly every way, save for one musical scene I’ve already mentioned. And I can see how years of experimenting with these live-action remakes has finally brought Disney to a place where they can make these movies even better going forward, assuming this entry isn't a fluke.
But I’m inclined to believe that it simply took Disney a while to figure out how to best present these old stories in relevant ways that don’t betray the spirit of what inspired them. And for once, I’m actually looking forward to the next film they take on. Assuming we also get another original film like Zootopia that same year.
Do yourself a favor and check it out in 3D. The Jungle Book is Disney's best live-action film in years, and that probably won't change for a while.