Remakes are an inevitable part of the film industry, and Disney has long had a unique ability to remake its animated film with live-action equivalents: 101 Dalmatians. Cinderella. Alice in Wonderland. (Most they will eventually turn into Broadway musicals.) Latest on the chopping block: The Jungle Book, itself adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s tales of an aboriginal boy named Mowgli, raised by forest creatures a generation before Tarzan swung into his literary domain. The 1967 film was of a piece with its time: A musical that drifted in that netherworld between counterculture and doo-woo, between the Beatles and Frank Sinatra. It grooved like Dean Martin, with a hint of the Beat Generation and hippiedom thrown in. And because Kipling’s own 19th century sensibilities hovered in the realm of racism, and the idea of real–life panthers and pythons seemed unwieldy, it seemed safe from remake.
To call the new Jungle Book live-action, though, may be to stretch the term a bit. Only one human actor appear in all of its 100 minutes, the bright-eyed newcomer Neel Sethi, who plays young Mowgli — reared by wolves, counseled by a panther, threatened by a tiger. The rest of what we see — including most of the scenery — is computer-generated (it was filmed in Los Angeles, not the Punjab). Even so, what you see has become, through modern technology, a marvel. It’s a childhood adventure tale that cinephiles will be amazed by.
Frankly, the beauty and storytelling strengths of the film are something of a surprise. The director is Jon Favreau, who has made several above-average comedy-infused action films (Iron Man 1 and 2) and some below-average ones (Zathura, Cowboys & Aliens). And the opening few minutes of Jungle Book — an over-edited chase scene — feels designed to distract rather than illuminate. But then we get into the emotion of the characters: The relationship between the man-cub Mowgli and his canine family; the avuncular, masculine attentions of Bagheera the panther (voiced by Ben Kingsley); the goofy good-natured devilishness of Baloo the sloth-bear (Bill Murray, in pure Peter Venkman sarcasm mode). If there’s one thing the Disney machine knows, it’s how to anthropomorphize and make you care about fauna. (The voice acting is exceptional in helping achieve this.)
That the young actor Sethi is able to carry this emotion on his narrow soldiers is a testament not only to him, but to Favreau’s direction, which modulates the adventure with pathos, light-heartedness, scares and sadness. He sets Mowgli in a gorgeous wonderland — not on another planet, or a fantasy world, but in the past, at a time when the natural world was still so much of a mystery.
The film is appropriate for most-age kids, but what makes The Jungle Book so good is how it taps the kid inside adults. It’s the first truly accomplished cartoon-to-human-being Disney adaptation… even if there aren’t many actual human being around. It owes as much to Raiders of the Lost Ark as to Bambi.
Opens Friday in wide release.