I confess that when I first heard that Disney was planning a big-budget, live-action, CGI-heavy remake of The Jungle Book, I received the news with no small amount of dread. The studio’s 1967 animated classic was perhaps my favorite of all Disney films growing up, and the updated version sounded like yet another in the series of cynical, nostalgia-plying cash grabs that have so come to define contemporary Hollywood.
But then, I had presumed very much the same about Mad Max: Fury Road and about Creed, which turned out to be two of the most delightful cinematic surprises of last year. And like those movies—and, to a somewhat more conflicted degree, Star Wars: The Force Awakens—The Jungle Book is proof that even the crassest commercial imperatives can be transcended when imbued with love and creativity. The Jungle Book may or may not be a nostalgia-plying cash grab. But regardless it is a genuinely wonderful film, an almost overwhelming onrush of thrills, wit, and tenderness.
The story is the familiar one—loosely adapted from Kipling’s eponymous book of stories—of Mowgli, the “man-cub” raised by wolves in the jungles of India. Threatened with death by the tiger Shere Khan, Mowgli, accompanied by his paternal panther Bagheera, heads for a man village where he might be safe, along the way encountering such notables as Kaa the python, King Louie of the apes, and, of course, Baloo the bear.
But at every step, the director Jon Favreau and the screenwriter Justin Marks have enriched the narrative, deepened the themes, and ratcheted the tension and emotion alike to unanticipated levels. Mowgli’s journey is now a much more vivid transition from cubhood toward autonomy, his human “tricks” and tool-making cast in clearer contrast to the wildness of the jungle. Is there a place for him there, or does he truly stand apart?
Each of the animal principals, moreover, offer Mowgli a different path to follow. There is Bagheera’s plan for civic safety and Baloo’s Arcadian escapism, of course. But Kaa, too (cunningly voiced by Scarlett Johansson), offers a beguiling—if presumably short-lived—intimacy. (“You can be with me, if you want. I’ll keep you near,” she purrs, coils slowly tightening.) And thanks to the equally delicious casting of Christopher Walken as King Louie, his offer of “protection” attains another dimension altogether. Moreover this time out, Mowgli’s ultimate decision is both more satisfying and better in keeping with the temper of the times, the belated correction of a moral and cinematic flaw almost half a century old.
Ben Kingsley is such an obvious pick to voice the benevolent concern of Bagheera that it’s almost hard to imagine the filmmakers considering anyone else. Choosing Bill Murray for Baloo was a greater gamble, but rather than descend into schtick, he offers a gentle, almost wistful interpretation of the big bear. Shere Khan may have been trickiest casting of all, given the towering vocal performance with which George Sanders supplied the original film. But the choice of Idris Elba offers an ingenious alternative: a tiger less urbane and still more menacing, fearsome in his nonchalant physicality. Lupita Nyong’o, meanwhile, is remarkably moving in the expanded (though still small) role of Raksha, Mowgli’s wolf-mother.
The CGI—which encompasses not only all of these characters, but the entire cinematic environment as well—is a modest revelation, once again extending the boundaries of the possible. (It’s a development about which I continue to have mixed feelings.) And as for virtually the sole human being in the middle of all this technological splendor, newcomer Neel Sethi is good if not exactly indelible as Mowgli. Perhaps inevitably for a boy inhabiting a universe that will be largely conjured around him after the fact, Sethi offers a performance that is less acting than embodiment—but he embodies Mowgli impeccably, right down to the floppy haircut and the red swaddle-diaper.
The visuals conjured by Favreau and the cinematographer Bill Pope are consistently first-rate, from the intense action sequences—a stunning stampede of water buffalo, more than one life-or-death encounter with Shere Khan—to the moments of quieter beauty: a frog wiping a raindrop off its head; a regal simian cityscape; a recently shed snakeskin large enough to sheathe a school bus. The enchantingly inventive credit sequence that concludes the movie is almost worth the price of admission all on its own.
Be advised: This Jungle Book offers a substantially darker, more frightening vision than its predecessor, one that might not be appropriate for all children. When Shere Khan asks Mowgli’s wolf pack “How many lives is a man cub worth?” he does not mean the question rhetorically. And “man’s red flower”—i.e., fire—plays a larger role as well, one as dangerous as any wild beast.
King Louie has likewise evolved from be-bopping orangutan to hulking Gigantopithecus. Gone is the goofy comic relief of the Fab Four-y vultures. And the trumpeting pretensions of the prior film’s cartoon elephants have been replaced with the awesome, silent majesty of a breed truly apart: the towering, god-like pachyderms who “created the jungle.”
That said, The Jungle Book is by no means humorless. If anything, its wit and tenderness set it apart more than its ferocity. Though not a musical per se, it includes alluring elements of more than one of its predecessor’s songs. And I would be remiss if I did not mention a wonderful cameo by Garry Shandling—the last performance before his death last month at age 66—as a porcupine, Ikki, who appeared in the Kipling stories but not in Disney’s earlier film.
By the time its evolution is complete, The Jungle Book has proven itself a minor Darwinian miracle, perhaps the oddest of all species: a movie nearly devoid of human beings, yet one bursting with humanity. The very last line uttered in the film is “I could get used to this.” Me, too.