If you’re cynical about the new live-action remake of Disney’s classic animated movie The Jungle Book from 1967, that’s okay. Remakes are largely cynical affairs, cash-grabs, easy money. Disney is good at this. Look no further than their new strategy for the Star Wars universe. Heck, look no further than Walt Disney World.
The Jungle Book is the latest in a recent bid to mine the Disney vault for familiar intellectual property guaranteed to make a buck, following the box-office success of the critically panned Alice in Wonderland (2010), the mixed-bag Maleficent (2014), and last year’s actually-pretty-good Cinderella. The difference between The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau and starring newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli, and those other movies is that The Jungle Book might just be a great movie, proving that sometimes financial intentions and artistic intentions can work together.
The bare bones of the new movie’s plot are the same as the original animated classic: Mowgli, raised by wolves, goes on a journey to leave the jungle to stay safe from a murderous tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba). Mowgli doesn’t want to leave, but Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley), with both Mowgli’s good and the good of the jungle in mind, works hard to convince Mowgli that it’s best for him if he goes to a Man-Village. On their way out of the jungle, they encounter many of the same characters as the animated movie: Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), King Louie the orangutan (Christopher Walken), Kaa the python (Scarlett Johannsson).
Not all of it works, but what does work leaves a big impression. Disney and Favreau have kept in some of the original’s songs. Because this iteration of the story doesn’t really play as a musical, the songs fit in sort of awkwardly. Christopher Walken’s rendition of “I Wan’na Be Like You” feels pretty shoehorned in, though Murray and Sethi singing “The Bare Necessities” is nothing but charming. If they had kept only “The Bare Necessities”, perhaps it wouldn’t feel like such an attempt to call back to the original.
What the movie does get right is pretty much everything else. The voiceover work is spot-on. Murray is a delight as the indolent Baloo, Kingsley is appropriately noble as Bagheera, and Elba is terrifying as Shere Khan. The movie’s jungle is beautiful from start to finish. Ostensibly fashioned entirely out of CGI, I could’ve sworn they were shooting everything on location. And the story, while a known commodity, highlights a value for community that was missing from the original.
This is far darker than the 1967 version. It deals more directly with death and with the inherent ugliness of the world. While kids might find more to be scared of in this movie, it’s just as funny and fun as the original, and it offers more for both kids and adults to chew on. I knew the whole time that what I was watching was essentially a greed-driven, sophisticated cartoon, and yet I was moved. Maybe cynicism isn’t all there is to this movie business thing.