The Jungle Book (PG) ★★★½

The Jungle Book image
‘The Jungle Book’ Mowgli (Neel Sethi) Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Those who were anxious about this remake can forget about their worries (and their strife).

“Now I’m the king of the swingers-oh, the jungle VIP; I reached the top and had to stop and that’s what’s botherin’ me!”

For a total of fourteen hours last week I listened to Disney tunes nonstop on road trips from Phoenix to Disneyland and back. Whenever “I Wan’na Be Like You” came on, I just had to sing along (much to the chagrin of my husband, in-laws and kids, I’m sure). It’s not only one of my favorite songs from Disney’s 1967 animated classic The Jungle Book, it’s one of my favorite Disney songs overall. Needless to say, despite the fact that I was worried when I heard about plans for a remake, I still hoped Iron Man director Jon Favreau would find a way to incorporate The Jungle Book’s songs into this year’s live-action version of the film.

I’m usually anti-remake in general, but when it’s a film that I absolutely loved in my childhood that’s being given the treatment, I’m especially antsy. My fears seemed to be confirmed in the first few minutes Favreau’s film, as it begins with jittery close-ups of young “man-cub” Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi, who’s neither a standout nor annoying like most child actors) running and jumping across tree branches in the jungle. I thought I was going to be sick. Thankfully there were only a few other sequences like that in the rest of the movie, which I’m thrilled to report is excellent. Favreau and his team created a lush, beautiful world for Mowgli and his friends—it’s truly the kind of film that you need to see to believe.

You know the story: Mowgli is left in the jungle as a baby, found by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and raised by wolves until the intimidating tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) learns of his existence and wants revenge for being burned and scarred by man’s “red flower” (fire) years ago. As long as Mowgli remains in the jungle, no one is safe from Shere Khan’s wrath, and so takes Bagheera takes it upon himself to accompany Mowgli on his return to the man village. It’s a coming-of-age story, as well as a tale of bravery and friendship.

Along the way Mowgli meets other jungle-dwellers: the up-to-no-good python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson, whose casting I felt was one of the film’s few missteps—her voice took me out of the film and didn’t convey Kaa’s trickery); lazy Sloth bear Baloo (who, on the other hand, was perfectly voiced by Bill Murray); and gigantic ape King Louie (Christopher Walken). Speaking of King Louie, whose song I was so hoping to hear in the film, I now must admit that even though I got what I wanted, it didn’t work. Favreau’s version of The Jungle Book is much darker, which is fine, but Walken’s King Louie doesn’t have the playful air of his animated counterpart—in fact, he’s quite terrifying. Yet he still sang “I Wan’na Be Like You” (with a few new lyrics) and it felt a bit forced. Why would this arrogant, violent, humongous creature break into song? Whereas—thankfully—“The Bare Necessities” still seemed like a tune Mowgli and Baloo would sing together while enjoying the enviable situation they’d created for themselves.

Unlike many other films that combine live-action performances with motion capture and CGI animation, I never once thought, “That doesn’t look real” during The Jungle Book. As great as the technology was in the recent Planet of the Apes films (for example), every once in a while I would still catch something that didn’t look quite right. Whereas The Jungle Book amazed me. Even the 3D effects added to the realism, for once. Although they’re obviously in completely different genres, it’s up there with Gravity, Birdman and The Revenant on the How Did They DO That? meter. It’s simply a beautiful, astounding film that creates a sense of magic like every Disney film should.

Finally, since I have already been asked this question by several parents, I’ll comment on whether or not this film is OK for kids (it’s rated PG, not G): because it looks completely real and is much darker and scarier than the animated version, I don’t think The Jungle Book is appropriate for the pre-K/kindergarten set—as in, my four-and-a-half-year-old son will not be seeing it. It’s hard for me to judge for kids older than that—and everyone knows what their own child will or will not be able to handle—but I’d say ages six, seven and up would probably be fine.

The Bottom-Line? Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is a stunning achievement in filmmaking and a truly memorable film that all but the youngest members of every family will enjoy.

Cast: Neel Sethi (Mowgli), Ben Kingsley (voice of Bagheera), Bill Murray (voice of Baloo), Idris Elba (voice of Shere Khan), Lupita Nyong’o (voice of Raksha), Scarlett Johansson (voice of Ka), Giancarlo Esposito (voice of Akela) and Christopher Walken (voice of King Louie)

Credits: Directed by Jon Favreau; written by Justin Marks, based on stories by Rudyard Kipling

Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Run Time: 1 hour 51 minutes

Erika Olson © April 15, 2016