Disney’s new Jungle Book can’t beat its original

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


The Jungle Book
Opens April 15
3 out of 5

Disney’s idea of turning animation classics into live-action extravaganzas has paid off beyond expectations. Maleficent turned Sleeping Beauty’s villain into a complex antihero, wronged by a man and treated as a pariah. Kenneth Branagh somehow transformed the submissive Cinderella into a paradigm of steely resolve.

The Jungle Book is the most conventional adaptation of the bunch. On the strength of Rudyard Kipling’s work, the story is still a treat but one can’t help but wonder if more capable hands could have provided a new perspective to the perennial conflict of man vs. nature.

In case you didn’t have a childhood, here is the plot. Abandoned in the jungle as a baby, Mowgli is rescued by a law-abiding panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Aware he is not the best option to raise a man-cub, Bagheera gets a pack of wolves to adopt the kid. It’s not a whim: the boy can only survive protected by a pack.

Ten years later, Mowgli’s distinctiveness becomes more apparent by the minute, enough to get Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) to take notice. Shere Khan is not fond of man or fire, and believes the man-cub could destabilize the jungle. Also, humans taste like chicken.

Given the looming threat, Bagheera decides to take Mowgli to the man-village, where presumably he would be protected. The journey is scattered with dangers — mellifluous pythons, power-hungry orangutans — but also fun-loving bears.

This version of The Jungle Book differs in some key aspects from its animated antecedent. The secondary villains of the piece  — Kaa and King Louie — are considerably more threatening than their cartoon counterparts. Shere Khan is very intense and could easily scare younger children. The ending is also different, but the motivations may not be all that artistic (cough, sequel, cough).

Director Jon Favreau’s main accomplishment is perfect casting: newcomer Neel Sethi is very winning (if overly cute) as Mowgli; Ben Kingsley is concentrated gravitas as Bagheera, and Bill Murray does his best work in a while as Baloo. But the undeniable MVP of The Jungle Book is Idris Elba as Shere Khan. It took Hollywood a while to realize the power of Elba’s vocal work. He is cheerfully flippant in Zootopia and genuinely terrifying here.

A subtle touch makes all the animals look ever so slightly like those voicing them (Kingsley as a panther is uncanny).

Because the songs of the original adaptation are engraved in the collective memory, “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” are shoehorned in clumsy fashion. Given that the tone of the film is darker, the contrast with the jazzy tunes is jarring.

The use of CGI is so constant throughout The Jungle Book, portions of the film make suspension of disbelief difficult. For some reason, there is another live-action adaptation of Kipling’s tale coming out in 2018 (Jungle Book: Origins), one that uses motion capture and features heavy-hitters like Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett.

All this effort, but the 2-D, 1960s animation has proved to be the best way to tell Mowgli’s story.