Critic Tom Edgerton reviews the hotly anticipated remake of The Jungle Book.
The Jungle Book is a film that manages to surpass its predecessor; it captures most of the elements that made the classic a childhood favourite, whilst developing and enhancing its more negative features. The recent surge in revamps from Disney has left me feeling fatigued, in desperate need of the classics’ whimsy. One of these classics remakes is one of my least favourite films, this being Alice in Wonderland, a film that took the entire colour palette out of the 1951 classics. Whilst this can be seen as an error made by the director Tim Burton, it should be noted that all of the Disney remakes have been making a tonal shift. It is now focusing on finding a balance between the two, shifting the tone to suit societal trends but trying to keep what made people love the classics. The recent Jungle Book remake is so far the only remake that has achieved this goal.
Both films are based loosely on the similarly named The Jungle Book (1894) by author Rudyard Kipling. The book contains a collection of short stories based on the laws of the jungle as lessons in morality. In the story we follow Mowgli, a ‘man-cub’ orphan who lives in the jungle. Due to a threat made by the tiger Shere Khan, the wolf pack that raised Mowgli has now abandoned him, forcing him to find a tribe of humans. The Jungle Book (1967) however, appears as series of quirky characters in different environments tied together in a plot so transparent it might as well not exist. The remake thankfully bulks up, adding a bit more meat to the plot. We see Mowgli (Neel Sethi) with a believable motive to leave, and the sense of danger is very apparent; multiple times his character is hunted by Shere Khan (Idris Elba), and is almost killed. The character development of Shere Khan transforms his character from what could only be described as a pompous aristocrat in a tiger suit to an intimidating, ruthless predator with a convincing motive, who acts as the perfect catalyst for the story. Despite George Sanders being a fantastic actor, I cannot help but question his use, it appears they wanted to highlight the tiger’s regal nature and status as king; sadly Shere Khan loses his edge as a threatening animal. Idris Elba provided a more wild and aggressive voice, thus creating a convincing threat in the story.
The remake mercifully trimmed a lot of the fat from the original as well, from the awkward humour of the vulture to the mediocre, unremarkable songs of the elephant. Yet it was smart enough to maintain the two songs that made the classic so beloved. Watching the original with my family proved how essential these songs were; Bare Necessities is what my dad remembered, even after years had passed. Without Bare Necessities, The Jungle Book would not be as well-remembered, and it’s the highlight of the film for many. Likewise, had it been left out of the remake, people would have rioted in the cinemas. It needed to be in the film, but the pressure to capture its essence was a hill Jon Favreau had to climb. With such a shift in tone from the two films, I honestly wasn’t sure if it would be in the film let alone be done proficiently, yet Favreau remarkably pulled it off in an enjoyable manner that made me smile throughout the whole song. Conversely, the song Christopher Walken sings, although my personal favourite song in the 1967 version, felt unnecessary and out-of-place for the scene.
The voice acting from all the actors was competent, which isn’t surprising considering the veteran skill of most of the actors, but I found myself having difficulties enjoying it. Nobody in this film performed badly, for me it was trying to remove the actor from the character. Most notably Bill Murray as Baloo; as an actor I love dearly, I couldn’t see him as anyone other than Bill Murray. The high quality animation only served to emphasise this; the hand drawn animation gets away with anthropomorphising animals, as it does not attempt to embed itself in reality. However, the remake is trying to create a more authentic reality. Baloo as a cartoon bear can do these goofy dances and behave more like a human; his voice therefore does not feel unusual. Baloo the CGI bear who looks and acts like a real bear feels jarring and abnormal, especially with the voice of Bill Murray. This is why the change in voice was so important for Shere Khan; whilst the 1967 version can get away with Sanders regal voice, the darker and grittier remake had to make a change and Elba was the ideal choice.
My biggest criticism of the remake is sadly the relationship between Mowgli and Baloo, an aspect done so well in the classic. The bond between Baloo and Mowgli established slowly, and as we see them grow as friends, we the audience then feel the pain that Baloo is going through in forcing Mowgli to leave. The remake took a similar approach with building their friendship, but the forcing Mowgli to leave felt rushed and underwhelming, with Murray’s delivery feeling unconvincing. In the classic we see the internal battle within Baloo; he doesn’t want to say it but he knows he has too. Murray’s Baloo just phones in the typical ‘I was never your friend’ cliché to ‘break poor Mowgli’s heart’.
Overall, however, I am pleased with the outcome of this remake. It’s very competent film with impressive animation and atmosphere. Favreau does a good job at making a retelling that surpasses its predecessor in many ways. Neel Sethi who play’s Mowgli gives an impressive first performance on camera, and captured the nature of the original’s Mowgli (thankfully with no blatant reused animation). I am glad Disney appears to have stepped up the game with these remakes and I am now more excited for Disney’s future titles.
Review by Tom Edgerton