Oh, oobee doo, I wish remakes were like you, talk like you too….
So Disney’s new corporate strategy, besides feeding their Star Wars and Marvel cash cows, is to dig through their 80 year animation film history, and remake the shit out of them in live action. Last time they did that, you got a boring copy-pasted slog that makes me curiously long for the original (Cinderella), but before that they made a revision of their original by introducing a rape metaphor (Maleficent…still the biggest WTF I’ve ever experienced from Disney). I think Disney found the sweet spot with their latest remake of their 1967 classic.
For those of you with parents who didn’t want to indoctrinate you to the ways of the Mouse, The Jungle Book is an extremely loose adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s story anthology by following a young Indian boy named Mowgli. For the remake, he was found alone in the jungle as an infant by the black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) who took Mowlgi to be raised by a wolf named Akela (Lupita Nyong’o). Aside from being chastised for creating inventions out of raw materials he found in the jungle, Mowlgi’s life is pretty alright until Shere Khan (Idris Elba) threatens the boy during a peaceful meeting between all the jungle’s inhabitants. Thus forcing Mowgli to leave his wolf pack and venture forth into the jungle for safety and running across the likes of Kaa the Python (Scarlett Johansson), King Louie the Gigantopithecus (read Wikipedia, kiddos…oops I mean Christopher Walken), and Baloo (Bill Murray).
I have to admit, even after the messes that were Cinderella and Maleficent, I walked away very impressed with this version of The Jungle Book. The original animation is still a gorgeous piece of art that really didn’t have a coherent narrative and was just a loose connection of scenes to bridge widely inventive animated sequences and great songs while being accompanied by solid characters. The remake instead focuses to strengthen the story and give a little more characterization to Mowgli and the animals while making sure the thespians are acting their asses off.
Seriously, I was very impressed by the animation techniques used on the animal characters even though you could tell all the backgrounds were fake and green screen. With some careful attention to lighting and movement of fur, Disney has managed to create a photorealistic aesthetic that works when these animals have to act opposite of a young boy acting in front of them. To the kid’s credit, he does an admirable job of interacting with creatures that aren’t really there since I’ve seen veterans of the film industry struggle to communicate with what to them looks like a piece of tape but an audience is supposed to see as a weird, alien creature. Neel Sethi may not be a household name within a decade, but he’s got a great start in Hollywood.
He’s flanked on all sides by an all star cast of actors and actresses giving fantastic vocal performances. We primarily have the recreation of the duo that was Baloo and Bagheera with Bill Murray and Ben Kingsley respectively, and both guys fit into their respective roles like gloves. Murray in particular opted to make Baloo more of “endorser of alternative lifestyles” (read: pothead only replaced with honey) who behaves more like a con man than his surrogate father original. It’s a slight difference that works that allows Kinglsey room to breathe as the father figure to Mowgli while also giving Baloo more of an arc to go through as he begins to risk his life for the boy.
Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the Python was hugely entertaining even if it was a tad on the pedophile side when luring Mowgli into letting his guard down (hey, the original was way worse on that front; for extra creepy points, Kaa was voiced by the same guy as Winnie the Pooh). And Christopher Walken gave me something I never knew I wanted: to hear him as a gigantic orangutan who talks like a mobster and sings the original’s “I Wanna Be Like You.” He’s in it a longer than Johansson and gets probably one of the most memorable scenes in the whole film, with an added continuation of his performance during the credits.
But Idris Elba takes the MVP out of all these great vocal performers as Shere Khan. The remake gives Khan more of a presence then he had in the original and registers more of a threat than he ever could have mustered in the mostly-whimsical original. And besides, it’s Idris GODDAMN Elba. He’s given the second greatest movie speech about killing aliens (yes people, after Bill Pullman’s speech in Independence Day, I’m not a blasphemer) and was the scariest antagonist I encountered last year. So bringing menace to a classic Disney villain was a walk in the park for him, but he’s elevated the character in the upper tiers of memorable Disney villains alongside Hades and Claude Frollo.
Reigning in all these performances is Jon Faverau giving his best major film production since the first Iron Man (although I’d recommend his more independent fare, Chef, is pretty damn great). Faverau keeps the story focused for you to pay attention and create comical situations that are at least entertaining and never grate on you. Plus, he gives you fun and exciting action sequences involving clever camera angles and being conservative with computer generated images. Just the way I like it.
After typing the review, I realize I didn’t have much to talk shit about. Neel Sethi wasn’t perfect, but he still did an admirable job for the task he was given, especially at his age. And while I did feel it was a bit longer than it needed to be, the time flew by pretty quickly and overall, I was roundly entertained. Walked out of the theater giving it a high Matinee, but after two days, it grew a little bit on me. I still don’t think this is worth an IMAX or 3D showing, as I still did not feel the added price is worth it. So for some brief quibbles, I’m giving this a low…