There is a scene early in Jon Favreau and Disney’s The Jungle Book that marries both the naturalist beauty of Rudyard Kipling’s immortalized tale and the zootopian logic of the House of Mouse’s best work. Deep in the wild outskirts of an Indian jungle, the summer’s dry season has become so hot that the local watering hole has shrunk to the degree where a “peace rock” can be seen. Animals from all walks of life mingle with one another in harmony, respecting the law of the jungle that when the water is low, there will be no hunting or danger.
In this context, Neel Sethi’s young Mowgli crosses paths in the harsh sunlight of midday with a wondrous variety of animals, including porcupines, rhinoceroses, and of course his beloved wolf pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), and his mother wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). The sense of majesty conveyed in this primal détente is a visual splendor even before Shere Khan (Idris Elba) saunters into view, stalking the scene as the jungle’s apex predator long in need of a drink.
Still, the most impressive thing about this scene is that other than Sethi himself, much of it exists nowhere save for on a movie screen (and the computers that helped generate it). Indeed, as the end of the credits testify, The Jungle Book was shot in downtown Los Angeles, and yet its ability to replicate the feral beauty of a distant world is as seamless as Sethi’s interaction with all of the jungle’s many animals from Bill Murray’s scene stealing Baloo, a bear with a taste for honey and lounge singing, to Ben Kingsley’s noble Bagheera, the nicest panther in all of this kingdom.
From a technical standpoint, The Jungle Book is a massive achievement since Favreau is able to merge real actors and sets with vast CG landscapes to perfect effect. But the real secret of The Jungle Book’s quality is that it does this while building a fully immersive, and frankly wonderful, cinematic experience. For years, Disney has been chasing live-action remakes of their classic animated films to frequent box office success. But only now have they crafted something truly special: a live-action variation on a classic that neither dishonors the original film nor relies on it for your enjoyment. Rather, The Jungle Book stands on its own two feet and emits a mighty, mighty roar.
The advantage comes from being an amalgamation of everything Rudyard Kipling’s tale has gone on to represent in pop culture. But instead of mining this nostalgia, Favreau has used it as a foundation to construct a wholly original approach to its feral splendor, which should wow all ages and create a new generational touchstone for children, pre-existing nostalgia not required.
Admittedly, the newest Disney film is of course intended to be a reliable reinvention of the 1967 The Jungle Book produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios. Remarkably, that was the last animated feature overseen by Walt Disney, as well as perhaps not coincidentally the studio’s last animated musical, and it took plenty of liberties in surmising Kipling’s episodic vignettes about life in the jungle as a 90-minute swinging jazz party. Mowgli in that film is still a boy raised by wolves and overseen by the panther Bagheera, and when Shere Khan returns to the jungle, it is instantly decided that Mowgli will be shepherded by Bagheera to man’s village.
Along the way he is almost hypnotized by Kaa, kidnapped by monkeys serving King Louie (now King Kong-sized instead of a mere orangutan), and of course is taught the “bear necessities” by the lovable Baloo. Yet, the newest film does not rely on the iconography of the original Disney film beyond the red cloth that Mowlgi wears. Rather, Favreau goes his own way by using a legion of computer animators to recreate photorealistic and lifelike animals with whom Sethi interacts throughout the film. Immediately, this choice severs the film from merely retreading memory lane and puts the film in a more visceral and immediate context.
By opting to present a relatively natural animal kingdom—at least as far as one can be with celebrity voices coming out of every creature’s mouth—there is an unavoidable sense of danger and tension of a young boy being around these beasts that is obviously not present in the animated film. In fact, it offers an excuse for Favreau to pursue some of the more primal elements about “the Law of the Jungle,” which runs through Kipling’s original tale. The grandeur of this world and its foreboding quality allow quite easily for elements from Kipling’s less rosy story (such as the fate of Mowgli’s father on the night he met Shere Khan) to be implemented in the tale.
In contrast, to date most live-action remakes of animated Disney classics have relied on either embracing the material’s inclination to reminisce about the past… or to intentionally subvert it. Last year, Kenneth Branagh made a lavish and very earnest remix of the Disney-specific version of Cinderella. While the year before, Disney played with its own iconography in Maleficent while also taking a revisionist tactic where they turned one of the studio’s greatest original villain creations into a misunderstood anti-hero. Either way, they both relied on a pre-existing love and appreciation for the Disney films that came before it to be fully appreciated.
The Jungle Book is almost entirely its own animal save for two exceptions. Midway through the film, Bill Murray offers his own decidedly lax rendition of “The Bear Necessities.” However, since he plays this slouching bear with such sweet lethargy, the ode feels neither out of character for that moment or too far removed from Murray’s own days as the greatest lounge singer in television history. However, less successful is when Christopher Walken’s voice as King Louie begins to croon “I Want to be Like You” in the worst possible moment. During a relatively dense sequence where Walken’s ape reveals himself to be a sort of 1950s Brooklyn bruiser, he drops the veiled threats for an actual musical number.
This solitary sequence feels out of step with everything else Favreau built in a film that has its own howl. Luckily, it is also the single beat that resembles a concession to the brand that this film willfully takes its cinematic genesis from. But overall, a Jungle Book movie this good doesn’t need to be like anyone else. People are going to go bananas no matter what.