How is Disney on such a roll these days? They continued their comeback on the animated front with “Zootopia” earlier this year, and now they’ve actually made a remake that’s better than the original. Granted, the 1967 animated version of “The Jungle Book” is one of the lesser classics. By 1967, the animation giant was already showing signs of declining animation quality, and while the movie is enjoyable, it doesn’t resonate the same way that films like “Pinocchio” or “Sleeping Beauty” did. Against all odds, this remake has raised the bar.
The story is familiar enough to anyone who knows of the movie. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) has grown up in the jungle of India amongst his family of wolves, though he’s quite clearly a “man-cub.” Things are quite peaceful in the jungle until the tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) wants Mowgli dead. Mowgli leaves his wolf family, and encounters many different challenges and friends in the hopes that he makes it to the “man village.”
Many of the same characters appear in this film as the 1967 version. There’s the wise and stern Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), the sinister snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the fire-obsessed King Louie (Christopher Walken), and of course, the laid-back, jovial bear Baloo (Bill Murray). Other characters are either new or greatly expanded, like Mowgli’s wolf parents Akela and Raksha (Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o, respectively), and a porcupine named Ikki voiced by the recently late Garry Shandling. In addition, a couple of the most famous songs are revived in this one. It wouldn’t be “The Jungle Book” if “The Bare Necessities” didn’t show up, but King Louie’s playful “I Wanna Be Like You” also gets a reprise (and some new embellishments), and Johansson sings Kaa’s song “Trust in Me” over the end credits.
There are many good things about this remake, but the CGI in this movie is something to behold. Many of the reviews for this movie noted its special effects, but this must be seen to be believed. The world that’s created here is marvelous, and it’s fairly ironic that this live-action remake, even though there are few real people in the movie, has a more concerted effort to make the CGI super-realistic. This isn’t to denigrate how marvelous Disney’s own animation efforts are with their animated films like “Zootopia,” but there’s most certainly a difference in the style of animation between these two films.
The cast is thoroughly excellent. Kingsley’s stately voice is at home with Bagheera. Walken’s distinct voice makes Louie (who’s now a Gigantopithecus in this version) a much more dangerous character than Louis Prima’s jazzy take on the character. Murray finds the right tone for Baloo. Being Bill Murray, there’s an almost inherent irreverence to his voice, but he also finds a surprising amount of gravitas to complement his lighter side. Johansson is a surprising choice for Kaa. Although she only appears for one scene, her enticing voice gives Kaa another dimension. Elba’s smooth, rumbling voice lends itself to Shere Khan well. And Sethi makes a memorable impression as Mowgli, and it helps that his character comes across better than in the 1967 version.
Other developments also bolster the film. The backstory (or Kaa’s version of it, anyway) is interesting and gives more character motive for Shere Khan and his hatred of Mowgli than in the 1967 version. The greater inclusion of Mowgli’s wolf family, and more masterful interweaving of characters and story threads, gives this film more depth and richness than the original. This “Jungle Book” remake emphatically makes the case that Disney’s doing well with its live-action remakes. With “Alice Through the Looking Glass” and “Pete’s Dragon” arriving in theaters soon, it’ll be interesting to see if they can keep the ball rolling.