The Jungle Book
The idea of Disney doing live-action remakes (or reboots, or re-imaginings) of many of their most beloved classics in the past few years has felt, I’m not going to lie, a bit lazy. “Maleficent,” “Alice in Wonderland” (and it’s forthcoming sequel), “Cinderella” (which I still haven’t seen) and this summer’s “Pete’s Dragon” are just some of the films in this vein that make you wonder if the Mouse House is just spinning it’s wheels creatively while the animation wing (including Pixar), Marvel and Lucasfilm print money for them. The truth is, though, that yes, “Alice in Wonderland” was a mess narratively, but it boasted some of Tim Burton’s richest visual work in years, and “Maleficent” did a canny re-interpretation of “Sleeping Beauty” that owed much to Angelina Jolie’s presence as the title character. Probably the most compelling prospect, however, was the animated classic “The Jungle Book” being done in live-action, not only because it seemed, alternately, like one of the most-likely (and least likely) candidates for such treatment, but also, in a world where “Life of Pi” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” exists, the state-of-the-art exists to where credible talking animals can exist in a live-action setting. Another reason was the director Disney hired to bring it to life- Jon Favreau, already a member of the Disney family courtesy of his association with Marvel on “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2.”
Favreau has taken a fascinating career trajectory. He was a character actor for a while, with his best-known role being in 1993’s “Rudy,” before he wrote himself to cult status heights with his film “Swingers,” which launched not only his career (he also played the main character) but also acting buddy Vince Vaughn and director Doug Liman. His first film as a director was 2001’s “Made” (which he also wrote, and co-starred in with Vaughn) before he was given the reins on 2005’s fantasy “Zathura.” Three years later, he hit a home run with “Iron Man,” but the reception of fans and critics for the storytelling choices of “Iron Man 2” and “Cowboys & Aliens” hit him hard. In 2014, he returned to more personal filmmaking with the humble and wonderful “Chef,” and now, he is back directing blockbusters with “The Jungle Book.” How did he do? Pretty damn well, actually. Granted, it helps when you have a classic film and book by Rudyard Kipling to work from, but that magic he displayed in “Iron Man” (I haven’t seen “Zathura,” the film most like a precursor to this one, it feels) is back, and it all comes down to story, stupid, because of course it does.
It’s been many years since I last watched Disney’s animated “Jungle Book,” but Favreau’s live-action adaptation of the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young boy raised in the jungle by a pack of wolves after his father is killed in front of his eyes, has me wanting to watch it again to see how I feel about it now. I’d imagine I’d like it still, because Disney has an irreplaceable magic touch in it’s classics, but I don’t know that I’d like it as much as Favreau’s film. This feels like one of the few of Disney’s modern live-action retellings that will really surpass it’s predecessor. The reason, I think, is because this is a story that feels like it just lends itself to a more serious interpretation, and it’s interesting to see a director take that while also bringing in elements of the animated classic, most especially the songs. The idea of hearing the classic’s most popular song, “The Bare Necessities,” sung by Bill Murray as Baloo the bear is irresistible in concept, but positively wonderful in practice. It’s not a musical number, though, but a montage of Baloo and Mowgli bonding and doing their thing after Mowgli helps Baloo get some honey to eat, and it’s a treat to find Murray so lively in a role that isn’t in a Wes Anderson film for a change. Even more delightful, though, is hearing Christopher Walken (as the giant Orangutan King Louis) singing “I Wan’na Be Like You” when the monkeys capture Mowgli as he has a choice to make of where he belongs in the world. Favreau has a deft touch with the actors, and he gets great work out of the young Sethi, who is, except for one flashback, the only actor seen on-screen- a daunting task for a veteran actor, but one Sethi manages to succeed at beautifully. He still has other actors to play off of, though, and Murray, Walken, Ben Kingsley (as the panther Bagheera), Lupita Nyong’o (as the mother wolf who raises Mowgli, Raksha), Scarlett Johansson (as the seductive snake, Kaa), and Idris Elba as the tiger Shere Khan all do fine voice work to get the best out of their young co-star.
Thematically, “The Jungle Book” takes it’s cues from Kipling, although doing so in a way that deviates from the original source material. The film turns on the delicate manner of man’s relationship to nature, and how our first invention, fire, can be used for destructive means. Does that make all men evil, in the eyes of the animals of the jungle? Shere Khan thinks yes, and that is why he would rather Mowgli not grow up, lest he become another threat to nature. But Bagheera and Raksha think there’s something more to it, that it’s the individual that dictates their relationship to nature, and they want to give Mowgli a chance to live when Shere Khan threatens him. The end is quite scary, but it brings this theme together beautifully, as Mowgli has a choice to make, and some responsibility to take when he causes havoc in the jungle. This is where Favreau’s talents as a storyteller come through strongest, and he makes “The Jungle Book” a film that hits on a lot of the things that make Disney’s best films so special. I’m not ready to say it tops it’s animated predecessor until I see that film again, but I can say that if other filmmakers can breath the sort of life into their revamped Disney classics as Favreau can, I say bring it on.