Ideally, every film should be judged on its own merits. Outside factors — how faithfully a movie adapts its source material, how well it carries on a franchise, how blatantly it feeds the audience’s nostalgia — are ultimately secondary concerns. But the people behind Disney’s live-action remakes have made it awfully hard to respond to their projects entirely based on what’s on the screen. 2014’s Maleficent had awe-inspiring visuals, but borrowed too much of its narrative power from 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, and undermined its mystery in the process. 2015’s Cinderella slathered extra sentiment and a weirdly regressive message over the 1950 animated version. And both films erratically stitch in so many specific bits and pieces of their animated predecessors that they lack their own distinct identities. Above all, both films raise the questions: “Why bother? Why did this need to exist?”
Jon Favreau’s remake of the 1967 animated Disney classic The Jungle Book has a few identity problems of its own. But the director of Iron Man and Iron Man 2 largely follows his own path here, with a confidence and freedom the previous two remakes lack. His Jungle Book is the first of Disney’s “brand deposit remakes” that isn’t just an inferior retread of an enshrined classic.
Ten-year-old Neel Sethi stars as Mowgli, the "man-cub" lost in the jungles of India as a child, and raised by a wolf pack and the doting but patrician black panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley). For much of the film, Sethi is the only real element onscreen; the jungle and the creatures around him are digital creations, the product of motion capture and animal studies. But the integration is nearly seamless. Favreau made a bold decision in covering Sethi with livid scratches, bruises, and welts that change throughout the film. The marks left on him by the jungle, and by his rough life as a wild creature, emphasize his softness and vulnerability compared to his animal friends. His scars are a silent reminder that the digital wonder around him has a physical impact.
Further evidence of that danger comes from the tiger Shere Khan, voiced by Idris Elba in the velvet purr of one of Shakespeare’s more unctuous villains. As with Kipling’s original story, Shere Khan has a personal vendetta against Mowgli that goes far beyond "He looks tasty." Bagheera and the wolves — including 12 Years A Slave star Lupita Nyong’o as Mowgli’s adoptive wolf-mother Raksha, and Breaking Bad star Giancarlo Esposito as pack leader Akela — try to keep him safe, but Shere Khan is vicious, powerful, and wily about manipulating jungle sentiment against the boy. It quickly becomes clear that the only way to save Mowgli is to take him back to his own kind.
The physicality of this Jungle Book is its single greatest asset. The animal characters aren’t always convincing when they’re talking or standing still; the Uncanny Valley exists for CGI animals, too, and there’s always something subtly off about these digital beasties. Their faces are stiff and their bodies lack a certain warmth: They look more like animated versions of stuffed animals than real ones. And the distinctive celebrity voices are distracting. When Bill Murray shows up as the bear Baloo, or Garry Shandling, in his final role as the shuffling, muttering porcupine Ikki, their voices are so evocative of familiar faces that they detract from the faces that are actually onscreen. The script turns some of the characters — Baloo especially — into goofy extended celebrity cameos, at the story’s expense.
But when the animals shut their mouths and run, climb, or fight, they’re marvelously convincing. And that becomes key in a movie that’s so much about the clash of animal wills and bodies, and about the rules — both instinctive and traditional — that guide their behavior. The 1967 animated versions of these characters also move with a liquid and believable animal sleekness, earned by careful study of real animals in the Disney studio. But they’re also softened and anthropomorphized cuddly cartoons. In the live-action version, the animal protagonists have visceral weight and impact, aided by tremendously effective sound design that makes every step or strike palpable. When Kaa the python (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) sinuously slithers along a straining tree, or the animal characters rip at each other with claws and fangs, the bodies feel convincingly, intimidatingly real.
Part of Favreau’s vision comes from Rudyard Kipling’s original novel, which Walt Disney famously told his animators not to read when they were working on the 1967 version. He reportedly found Kipling’s stories too dark, and his squeamishness shows in the finished film, which keeps Kipling’s characters, some broad ideas, and not much else. Favreau’s screenwriter, Justin Marks, sticks closer to the book, even taking some of the dialogue and Kipling’s poetry directly from the page. But he also brings his own dramatic imagination into the mix. Some of his inventions feel odd at first — watching these familiar characters play such different roles feels like putting on a favorite shirt and finding out it’s turned into a vest. But they follow a comfortable story logic that contributes to The Jungle Book’s status as a modern fable.
Christopher Walken is the film’s oddest fit. He plays the monstrous, prehistoric gigantopithecus King Louie like a Marlon Brando pastiche, somewhere between Apocalypse Now (which The Jungle Book subtly references during his first appearance) and The Godfather. When Louie first offers Mowgli his protection, he sounds for all the world like a mob boss shaking down a local business. And when he breaks into a rewritten version of "I Wanna Be Like You," from the 1967 film, he evokes the endless hitching, coolly removed Walken-impression song parodies floating around the net. Favreau’s decision to include that song, and an awkwardly off-key version of "Bare Necessities" sung by Murray and Sethi, don’t work as anything but open concessions to the nostalgia crowd. (Johansson’s rendition of Kaa’s song "Trust In Me" and Dr. John’s raspy "Bear Necessities" cover both work a little better because they’re removed from the narrative. Like Helena Bonham Carter’s performance of "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" in 2015’s Cinderella, they only play over the closing credits.)
The songs don’t particularly fit into this darker, wilder Jungle Book, which brutally kills off a beloved character, and climaxes in a bloody face-off that’s miles away from the Disney classic’s quiet, domestic ending. Favreau and Marks’ version is surprisingly daring in its use of violence, and its physical and emotional darkness. It’s also creative, occasionally in bizarre and colorful ways. The filmmakers build a strange and solemn cosmology around elephants. They re-envision Mowgli as a junior engineer, resourcefully building and using tools in ways that unnerve the jungle denizens. And they bring back Kipling’s murderous gravity, and the sense of danger and wonder that his writing brought to these stories.
There’s a notable gloss of digital polish and artificiality over this new Jungle Book, and adults may not be able to shake the sense that they’re watching a cash-grab rerun from their childhoods. But kids are probably going to miss that entirely, and just see a child playing scary, exciting games in the jungle. Most importantly, Marks and Favreau have a real vision here. Mowgli’s distinctiveness as a human is both his burden and his protection, and it may not be enough to protect him from a tooth-and-claw world that has no respect for differences. It’s hard to see any of the Disney remakes as standalone experiences, not living in the shadow of classics. This atmospheric, evocative, and above all, powerful Jungle Book at least makes an effort to come out of those shadows.