Like many others, I wasn’t sold on the sudden initiative by Disney to convert seemingly all of their animated movie classics into live-action at first. After last year’s live-action Cinderella remake turned out to be great however, I became more open to the possibilities offered by Disney’s desire to give live-action makeovers to their most iconic animated movies, despite the let-downs of 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and 2014’s Maleficent. It wasn’t until The Jungle Book that I was fully behind the idea though, because The Jungle Book is the first live-action remake to undeniably surpass its animated predecessor with gaping strides.
Maybe surpassing the original animated Disney version of The Jungle Book from 1967 is a lower bar than some would care to admit, as its recycled animations, repetitive story turns and mostly unmemorable song list (“Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You” aside), have left it aging rather poorly. Even amidst the many film adaptations of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book anthology however (including Disney’s own live-action re-tooling of The Jungle Book from 1994, and the subsequent ‘Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story‘ that the studio made in 1998), Disney’s new live-action version of The Jungle Book could be the very best to date. It’s a movie that not only blows its animated predecessor out of the water, but is a bona fide masterpiece on its own merits, getting pretty much everything right.
It’s not often that April spoils us with a movie this outstanding, but The Jungle Book is a movie that demands to be experienced by pretty much anyone willing to appreciate it, children and adults alike. The movie is certainly more harsh and potentially scary to children than the animated movie could ever be, but whether or not you’ve seen the previous animated version of The Jungle Book from Disney, 2016’s The Jungle Book seems poised to become a new instant classic for the Disney catalogue, proving once and for all that maybe these live-action reinterpretations of Disney’s classic movies do have the capability to improve the legacy of their inspirations.
Unlike Disney’s previous live-action version of The Jungle Book, which completely revamped the story, namely by making protagonist, Mowgli a grown man, the 2016 variation of The Jungle Book is a pretty proud remake of Disney’s original 1967 animated version of the story. This means that Mowgli is once again a little boy, or, “Man-cub”, and the movie unfolds from the perspective of his early years, living among the wolf pack that raises him, then subsequently leaving to brave the jungle.
First and foremost, the young actor playing Mowgli in this movie, Neel Sethi, is absolutely fantastic in the part! Considering that this kid has never been in a movie before, he had a pretty daunting task for his feature film debut, namely having to act in invisible CGI sets, and interact with invisible CGI animals. Sethi however beautifully rises to the occasion, realizing a Mowgli that has a wide-eyed, very charming innocence, but also a sense of courage and fortitude that really makes him a compelling hero. There are a few small moments where you can see some tells that Sethi isn’t exactly sure what he’s acting off of, or where he’s supposed to be, but these are very rare, and it’s unlikely that most viewers will pick up on them.
If you weren’t aware, every single animal character in The Jungle Book is fully CGI, but that doesn’t make them any less appealing. I’ll get to how excellent the CGI work is in the appropriate section, but I will say that every animal is a lovable, memorable personality. Some of the animal personalities naturally have more screentime than others, but all of them make their mark, and all of them are immensely appealing to watch, especially when they effectively feel so lifelike.
The animals you see the most in the movie are Bagheera, the black panther voiced by Ben Kingsley, Baloo, the bear voiced by Bill Murray, and Shere Khan, the villainous tiger voiced by Idris Elba. Their characters have been exceptionally expanded upon in contrast to the previous animated movie, and it really bears repeating that all of them are excellently voiced. Kingsley’s doting, yet majestic performance as Bagheera makes him a great spiritual father figure to Mowgli, and Kingsley’s voice work is especially effective when blended with Murray’s. Murray’s portrayal of Baloo is far and away his best performance in years, and it’s definitely the most personality that Murray has displayed in years as well, as his slothful, yet good-hearted nature makes for a standout foil and ally to Mowgli.
As fantastic as Murray and Kingsley are in The Jungle Book though, it’s Elba that will probably grab viewers the most. Elba’s Shere Khan is a truly terrifying menace, and even grown adults will find him legitimately unsettling! Elba’s uncompromising and vicious voiceover is truly incredible, though kids who are easily scared might find him to be a little too frightening. Still, it’s tough to complain about a voice actor allegedly doing their job too well, and Elba, alongside Sethi, is another highlight performer in The Jungle Book, with his scenes often being among the best in a movie that is already packed with amazing scenes!
The cast is rounded out by several smaller parts that effectively tie the movie together, even if some characters, as with the animated movie, show up in one set piece and then disappear for the rest of the movie. Even so, their characters will stick with you, and that’s thanks largely to the amazing voiceover performances. Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o start the movie off on the right foot as alpha male wolf, Akela and alpha female wolf, Raksha, respectively, giving Mowgli a strong sense of family roots that make his having to make for his own people effectively tough and heartbreaking. Likewise, Russell Peters, Sam Raimi, director, Jon Favreau, and the late Garry Shandling, in his final role here, add little bits of charm to the movie’s more light-hearted scenes, voicing chipper animals that keep the Disney charm intact, even when most of the movie is so effectively tense and atmospheric.
Two other big standout actors in the movie are largely relegated to one-off scenes, though they still make for great obstacles for Mowgli while they last. The most advertised of these one-off characters is the gender-swapped Kaa, now a much larger female anaconda instead of a more normal-sized male boa constrictor, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who punctuates one of Mowgli’s first movements into the deeper regions of the jungle. Like Elba’s Shere Khan, Johansson voices Kaa so well, giving her an engrossing and irresistible tone that is tough to shake for even viewers, let alone Mowgli, that even grown adults will probably find Kaa legitimately scary! She’s sadly mostly left to be a flashback device that recaps the story and stakes before Mowgli’s latest bout of danger, but Kaa’s character is still very effective. Johansson is even given the chance to sing a remixed version of, “Trust in Me” from the original 1967 animated version of The Jungle Book over this movie’s end credits, and it’s awesome, being eerily catchy and unnerving at the same time.
The other big standout is, predictably, Disney’s original Jungle Book creation, King Louie, who is voiced by Christopher Walken in this live-action remake. Like Kaa, King Louie has been redesigned to be far larger and more imposing in this movie, and while it can be jarring to people who are used to the normal-sized version of the character, the effect works in terms of making him feel more regal and impressive. Walken, of course, is as excellent as the other voiceover actors, giving Louie a great mix of a presence both imposing and comical. There may be more danger to his character, but the playful element of Louie from the original animated version of Disney’s The Jungle Book is thankfully preserved pretty well in this live-action remake regardless.
Even in a live-action movie that’s kind of surreal, it’s amazing how much personality and credibility is given to both Mowgli and the various animal personalities. Rather than just feeling like CG talking animals, the characters from throughout The Jungle Book feel as real as any human personality that could have taken their place, and that’s a superb testament to the high quality of the voiceover performances throughout the movie. This is the kind of movie where you’ll quickly forget that the characters beyond Mowgli are just effects, and that means that both the voiceover actors and computer animators have done their jobs exceptionally!
At heart, the story of The Jungle Book is pretty simple. It’s merely about the movie’s lone human character, Mowgli, a little boy raised by wolves who regularly interacts with talking jungle creatures, having to reach safety after he’s marked for death by the evil tiger, Shere Khan. Along the way, he encounters allies like the lovable bear, Baloo, and dangers like the hypnotic anaconda, Kaa, and the greedy gigantopithecus-like orangutan, King Louie. If you’ve seen the original 1967 animated version of The Jungle Book from Disney, you’ll find that the vague progression of the storyline is pretty similar in the live-action remake.
That said though, the live-action remake of The Jungle Book does tweak quite a few of the details from the original movie, to the point where the progression is similar, beyond an altered ending that leaves a lot more wiggle room for a sequel (go figure), but almost entirely feels like a brand new movie. There’s entire set pieces and story elements that are all new, and weren’t included in the original animated movie, and likewise, some of the more dubious elements of the animated movie have been removed from the live-action movie.
The story of The Jungle Book still primarily exists as a series of set pieces that follow a simple objective, but even then, the dialogue and plotting are so well-done, that there manages to be a lot of great themes about ingenuity and tolerance throughout the production. This live-action remake is overall a much weightier movie than its animated predecessor, but some of the substance and polish that the original animated movie really needed has now been realized in this live-action version, making it easily Disney’s, and perhaps any studio’s, best work in adapting the original source stories.
The Jungle Book is directed by Jon Favreau, someone who really proved his blockbuster chops in the directors’ chair with the first two Iron Man movies. Even considering the incredible work that Favreau did on Iron Man and Iron Man 2, The Jungle Book could mark his greatest directing achievement to date, as Favreau essentially assembles a wonderful live-action movie from practically nothing!
The only physical presence that Favreau has to work with in this movie is that of Neel Sethi, who is the only tangible character not made from computers. Everything else is done purely through the magic of CGI and voiceover, but even then, Favreau never feels bound or hamstrung by the lack of practical effects. The way he oversees the voiceover performances and set design makes everything feel astonishingly real, having cool touches like mud and water splashes that appear to cover the camera, and neat little atmospheric effects that make the movie’s jungle setting a character in and of itself, one that makes everything feel like you could reach out and touch it, even if none of it is actually there.
The strongest element of Favreau’s direction however is definitely just how much personality he gives to everything throughout the production. Favreau manages to balance both personality and atmosphere perfectly in The Jungle Book, leading to a movie that is very gripping and immersive, but also very fun and entertaining. This is a movie that fits right in with the Disney catalogue, but uses the live-action conversion to add more weight and power to the story, along with refining several elements of the animated movie that felt cheap, or just didn’t work very well. There isn’t a single element of this movie that feels botched or out-of-place, and the fact that it was all generated from thin air beyond the lead actor makes everything all the more impressive to experience!
The music suite of The Jungle Book is extremely well done, being composed by a Jon Favreau and Disney favourite, John Debney. Debney’s score perfectly moves between danger, charm and ambiance whenever the situation calls for it, without ever missing a beat, and Disney fans will probably want to pick up this movie’s soundtrack CD, since it’s another particularly great set of music from the studio! That consideration of course comes before the inclusion of new remixes of classic songs from the original animated version of The Jungle Book as well, sung by the new actors, such as, “Trust in Me”, “I Wan’na Be Like You”, and, of course, “The Bare Necessities.” Some of the songs even have revised lyrics in the live-action remake, which are once again written by Richard M. Sherman, the same song writer from Disney’s original animated version of The Jungle Book.
While Scarlett Johansson’s variation of “Trust in Me” is relegated to the end credits (perhaps an actual scene of Kaa singing the song was cut from the movie), both, “The Bare Necessities” and, “I Wan’na Be Like You” actually are sung in the movie briefly, despite the live-action remake of The Jungle Book not being a musical. They’re neat little nods to the original movie, and Disney fans will probably enjoy the new compositions, but as I said, the live-action version of The Jungle Book is not a musical. That makes the sudden song sequences feel really weird and out-of-place. This feels like one of the only small gripes that one could have with the live-action remake, since the songs are fun, but they’re also unnecessary, and they disturb the atmosphere. It feels like they were only put in to placate die-hard Disney fans who really enjoyed those songs in the original animated movie.
That said though, the audio work in the movie is really awesome, especially when, again, none of the sets are actually there, and everything is computer-generated! You’ll get the most out of the movie’s soundtrack in the IMAX 3D cut as well, which is especially cool and atmospheric, and manages to feel very real, to the point where you won’t want to believe that most of what you’re seeing in front of you is CGI. Even conjured from the ether, the movie does a sublime job of making you feel like you’re actually in a fantastical jungle environment, one as inviting as it is dangerous!
Many people, film snobs especially, tend to make the automatic claim that practical effects are always better than CGI. For the most part, that’s true, since people’s brains have a way of being able to tell when something is really there or not. The live-action remake of The Jungle Book however might be the rare exception where CGI actually trumps practical effects! The entire movie is completely done with CGI imagery, and yet, it feels perfectly real and immersive, to the point where audiences will probably wonder if some of the CGI imagery is actually real at certain points!
The Jungle Book is already an easy contender for one of 2016’s top achievements in special effects, since it makes a lifelike jungle filled with fantastical personality from absolutely nothing. Despite everything being computer-generated, everything looks incredibly real and believable. The animals look and animate like real animals, even after being given human voices. The environments look and respond the way they would in real life. Even when the animal characters are given small doses of human-like expressions, it still works, and it still makes them come alive perfectly!
It’s the environments that are the real star of The Jungle Book though, and all of them look completely stunning! Whether it’s a rain-soaked, muddy ravine, a dark, shadowy set of treetops, or an aged stone temple, every set piece in The Jungle Book is realized perfectly, effortlessly bridging the gap between CGI and realism! The movie really does feel like a gripping, worthwhile journey for the audience as much as Mowgli himself, since the various elements of the movie’s jungle setting feel distinct and fun to experience, even when nothing is filmed on location.
I also cannot stress enough that the experience is really at its best in IMAX 3D! My own screening of the movie was in IMAX 3D, and it was an absolutely mind-blowing experience! The IMAX screen and speakers are used incredibly well in this format, and provide the most immersion and punch for big screen viewings. If you have the means to see the IMAX 3D cut of The Jungle Book, definitely do it, because this will probably be one of IMAX’s most impressive visual blockbusters this year, alongside Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice from Warner Bros.
If you don’t have the option of IMAX or other such premium format showings, at least make an effort to see The Jungle Book in 3D. Even standard digital 3D works well to create an added air of depth and immersion to the environments, and the 3D presentation works beautifully with the CG environments here. It really makes The Jungle Book come alive, and while the 3D is very subtle, it’s implemented perfectly, creating an added sense of scale that’s worth the few extra dollars on your movie ticket. Obviously, the movie is still very visually stunning in a flat 2D screening, but this is a movie where you’ll definitely want to pay for 3D and IMAX if you have that option, as the premium visual formats are expertly implemented to make an already engrossing movie even more engrossing!
Even after Disney already delivered a contender for one of 2016’s top movies in Zootopia from this past March, the studio only seems to be moving on up with The Jungle Book, which, amazingly, might be an even more impressive movie! This is the movie that justifies Disney’s desire to remake their animated classics in a live-action format for modern audiences, since the live-action remake of The Jungle Book is not only Disney’s best adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling anthology to date, but probably anyone’s best adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling anthology to date!
The month is just over half over at this point, but I doubt that any April movie release is going to end up topping this one. The Jungle Book is the biggest must-see movie of this April, for viewers of all ages, and will likely stand as one of the year’s best movies overall! The animated movie is no doubt friendlier to little kids, as this live-action remake can be a lot scarier and weightier in terms of its presentation, but it also never completely breaks away from its PG rating, even if it pushes it as hard as it can, without moving into actual PG-13 territory.
Warner Bros. has their own live-action Jungle Book adaptation in the pipeline, now planned for a theatrical release in October of 2018, but Disney’s latest adaptation is certainly going to be one nigh on impossible act to follow! I suppose we’ll just have to see how that turns out in a couple of years. For now though, whether or not you’ve seen the original animated movie from 1967, you definitely don’t want to miss The Jungle Book, which will either make you fall in love with this story all over again, make you fall in love with this story for the first time, or finally give you plenty of reasons to fall in love with this story.
- Universally appealing cast, especially Neel Sethi's Mowgli
- Emotional, gripping storyline and direction
- Mind-blowing CGI jungle that looks genuinely real
- Song sequences, while fun, are unnecessary