By Adam Cutrone
When word first started to spread about a live-action adaptation of Disney’s 1967 animated classic “The Jungle Book”, it was met with a fatigue that has become all too familiar in an entertainment climate that thrives on reboots and reinterpretations. However, sitting in a packed theater of excited children and their patient parents, such pretensions were left gleefully on the theater lobby floor.
I will admit that prior to my arrival at the theater, I was apprehensive about what kind of version of “The Jungle Book” I was about to see. Given Hollywood’s penchant for all things dark and gritty as a means to align their material to the quality and realism of Christopher Nolan or the Marvel films, somewhere along the line these buzzwords have lost all sense of meaning. Having enjoyed the now infamously brooding adaptation of “Batman v Superman“, I could see how the somber tone could very easily alienate younger audiences. It was my sincere hope that John Favreau, director of the acclaimed “Iron Man” films would not succumb to a similar temptation with this beloved tale.
What is apparent almost immediately is that “The Jungle Book” is stunningly beautiful. For all the tired arguments that CGI is killing the movie industry, there are movies like this one to hammer home the idea that these effects can achieve a visual palette that is as moody as it is sublime. For a film that was apparently constructed entirely in downtown L.A., you’d never know it if the film didn’t explicitly tell you so within its credits. “The Jungle Book” is at times patient and beautifully reverent but never lacking in joy and youthful excitement. If you’re not a fan of 3D films, this may be the one to change your mind.
With a strong and confident visual landscape, the enormously talented cast injects a charm that elevates this remake from tent pole cash-grab into something more. With names like Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito and even a small prickly cameo by the late Gary Shandling, “The Jungle Book” is just as heartwarming and thoughtful as you’d hope it would be. Hollywood newcomer Neel Sethi’s Mowgli isn’t exactly Daniel Day-Lewis, but the film never asks that of him. He only ever needs to be a real child, with real ambitions, emotions and the most human of traits: ingenuity. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s outrageously athletic.
Now it would be a crime if I did not call attention to the performances of Idris Elba as Shere Khan and Bill Murray’s Baloo. Idris Elba is so good at playing a villain that it makes me forget his equally brilliant performance as the uptight Charles Minor, Michael Scott’s temporary replacement in NBC’s “The Office”. And what can be said about Bill Murray that hasn’t already been said. It’s in Murray’s unique charm and infectious warmth that the well-fed sloth bear just simply is Baloo. He’s got a pretty great set of pipes too, I might add.
During my research for this article, I was surprised to find that in the mid-60s, a treatment for what we now know as Disney’s “The Jungle Book” was originally penned to be a significantly darker, non-linear story focusing on man’s war on nature and a little boy caught in the middle — a much more faithful adaptation to the original text written in 1894. It wasn’t until Walt Disney himself stepped in, on what would be one of his final contributions to the motion picture industry before his death in 1966, and completely overhauled production to create what we recognize today as the revered American classic.
I mention this because back in 1967, Disney’s “The Jungle Book” was already an adapted screenplay. Hell, it wasn’t even the first time the material was adapted to film. A prior live-action version had been made as early as 1942. If we as an audience rejected every single reinterpretation of classic storytelling, we would be denying ourselves and younger generations the joy and excitement of discovering these wonderful characters time and time again.