Film Review – The Jungle Book (2016)

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Disney is certainly going full force with its quest to seemingly do a live action remake of everything in its back catalogue. Initially this may have seemed like a smashing idea, with the prospect of big budget incarnations of Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast hitting cinema screens, but a couple of middling offerings in the shape of Maleficent and Cinderella knocked some of the wind out of this gargantuan undertaking.

The announcement of Jon Favreau as director of The Jungle Book, remaking one of Disney’s best and best-loved features, honestly never sounded inspiring. Favreau is a capable director but arguably little more than a hired gun. The prospect of him re-tooling beloved creations such as Baloo, King Louie and Bagheera, with young Mowgli romping against what would surely be a hellish looking green screen jungle sounded like a dubious way to spend a couple of hours.

What a massive stroke of fortune then that he’s delivered easily his best movie to date and given Disney’s live action cinematic universe the kick up the backside it needed.

Eschewing the “reimagining” angle that Maleficent took when updating its subject matter, The Jungle Book is essentially a straight remake of the 1967 animated classic. If that sounds like sacrilege then don’t worry. Favreau’s movie is just reverent enough to its namesake while managing to strike off on its own, forging new paths and identities for its characters and avoiding any sense of redundancy.

Man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) has spent much of his short life being raised by wolves in the Indian jungle and always under the watchful eye of black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). After running afoul of the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) and upsetting the balance within the jungle, Bagheera decides to escort the boy to the nearest human village to escape the possibility of him being eaten alive. Along the way, Mowgli meets laid-back Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), the hypnotic python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and Louie (Christopher Walken) the Gigantopithecus king of the Bandar-log monkeys.

Almost immediately following the opening seconds of the movie there’s a fantastic release of tension as you realise, not only does this not resemble the green CGI hell of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but the environment actually looks amazing. The Indian jungle, filmed entirely in downtown Los Angeles, absolutely sparkles with life. The digital incarnations of the jungle beasts look astonishingly like the real deal too, with uncanny flicking of whiskers and twitching of ears and tails.

The voice cast does some amazing work too, breathing life into new, but recognisable incarnations of the characters. Bill Murray will no doubt capture much of the plaudits as his turn as everybody’s favourite bear, but Christopher Walken’s King Louie, ruling the roost as a giant, hairy mob boss, is a stand out in the movie’s most thrilling set piece. Perhaps the one shaky moment comes from Idris Elba’s take on Shere Khan. His villainous tiger seems to lack a sense of authority and real menace, but it’s not enough of an issue to derail the fun.

Favreau has interestingly decided to retain a couple of the songs from the 1967 original. It’s a decision that initially seems strange as the opening notes of The Bare Necessities begin to make their presence felt. At first the songs seem anachronistic but after a moment you realise there was no way of remaking the movie and leaving them out. These songs belong in this movie and their slightly amended, updated arrangement here pretty well sums up a movie that reminds you of an amazing original, but feels fresh and vital in its own way.

[rating=4] | Chris Banks

Adventure, Family | USA, 2016 | PG | Disney Pictures | 15th April 2016 (UK) |Dir. Jon Favreau | Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley , Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong’o, Giancarlo Esposito