Hollywood is in the grips of a terrible fever that might most kindly be called "a fear of the new" or, less generously, "creative bankruptcy." The disease has been manifesting itself in the spate of remakes and reboots of older films – sometimes of films that aren't even that old. (Spider-Man, for instance, is about to get his third big-screen reboot in only 15 years.) Disney is suffering from a particularly virulent form of the syndrome: The studio is planning live-action remakes of all its classic animated films; we've already seen one in last year's Cinderella, which was a wild commercial success but was almost entirely superfluous in a storytelling sense, or even merely as a moviegoing experience.
But sometimes there is a good reason to remake an old film, and Disney found it with its new version of The Jungle Book. A little darker than the 1967 cartoon, and not quite a musical – though it does include the two best songs from the previous film, "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You" – this is a filmmaking achievement that goes right up to the bleeding edge of what 21st-century cinema technology can do. This new Jungle Book tells a story that is strapping yet simple (certainly compared to the overstuffed blockbusters we are typically bombarded with) and hugely appealing. It's a sheer delight for kids and adults alike, that rare family film that is actually suitable for the whole family, grown-ups too.
Here's the thing, though: Despite its darker mood and tone, this Jungle Book is, like the original, mostly animated. Young Mowgli, the orphaned "man cub" raised by wolves in the Indian jungle, is played by a human being, young newcomer Neel Sethi, who is not only completely adorable but also exudes intelligence and packs a wallop of fierce determination. But he is the only live-action element. The jungle and all of the animals are computer-generated, though you'd be hard-pressed to guess that. The lushness of Mowgli's world is palpable, and the 3-D has beautiful depth that makes you feel as if you could walk right in. And the animals look utterly, touchably and in some cases – cute wolf cubs! – pettably real. (The marvelous voice cast includes Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken and Garry Shandling.)
Screenwriter Justin Marks retains the core of Rudyard Kipling's fiction – as well as that of the 1967 film – in the tale of Mowgli and his pals Bagheera the panther (voiced by Kingsley) and Baloo the bear (Murray), and Mowgli's targeting by the man-eating tiger Shere Khan (Elba). But it expands here into a fable about not denying who you are – Mowgli will never be a wolf no matter how hard he tries – while also being loyal to your friends no matter who they are; Mowgli's lack of wolfness does not restrict him from considering them his family anyway. And as Mowgli finds new ways to deploy his "tricks" – as the other animals call his clever, and inevitably man-like, use of tools, such as turning a big shell into a bowl for drinking water – another fable creeps in: one about humanity's responsibility to be thoughtful stewards of the natural world (which comes with the reminder that we are a part of it), because we have the potential to do such damage to it if we are careless.
But this is an action fantasy first! And director Jon Favreau stages some extraordinarily thrilling sequences; the landslide that sends a herd of water buffalo into a frenzy of stampeding fear is heartstopping, not least because Mowgli is right in the middle of it. In a way that few other movies have achieved – Avatar might be the only one – we are right in the middle of it, too, in every way we can be. This new Mowgli and his animal friends are true charmers. You won't be able to get "Bare Necessities" out of your head for days afterward, and you won't even mind.
4 out of 5 stars