Hyperreal digital animation meets old-fashioned storytelling in this faithful remake, which loses the songs but brings new, ingenious twists on the original.
What on earth is the point of remaking Walt Disney’s great and possibly greatest masterpiece, the glorious animated musical from 1967, based on Kipling’s tales, all about the “man cub” Mowgli, brought up by wolves in the Indian jungle – famously the last film to get Disney’s personal touch? A remake which furthermore leaves old-fashioned animation behind, departing for the live-action uncanny valley of hyperreal CGI, which heretically loses most of the songs and which also abandons the original’s final, unforgettably exotic glimpse of a real-life human girl?
Well, no point really … other than simply to create a terrifically enjoyable piece of old-fashioned storytelling and a beautiful-looking film: spectacular, exciting, funny and fun. It handsomely revives the spirit of Disney’s original film, while also having something of old-school family movies about animals like The Incredible Journey (1963) – it almost feels like something I could have watched as a kid on TV. Yet also, weirdly, there’s a touch of Mel Gibson’s jungle nightmare Apocalypto (2006).
Perhaps most strikingly of all, it re-imports into the story elements of the Disney classic The Lion King (1994) which The Jungle Book influenced in the first place: there’s a special rock for the animals to gather round, a stampede scene and an evil feline with a facial disfigurement.
Newcomer Neel Sethi plays Mowgli himself; Ben Kingsley voices Bagheera the panther; Idris Elba is the evil tiger Shere Khan; Scarlett Johansson is the hissing snake mesmerist Kaa; Christopher Walken is the voice of King Louie the fire-hungry ape and inevitably – but pleasingly, and very amusingly – Bill Murray is an outstanding vocal turn as the notorious ursine slacker and pleasure-seeker Baloo the bear who teaches Mowgli the importance of kicking back and enjoying the bare necessities of life.
I’ve never seen digital rendering of talking animals look so persuasive and this film also creates witty and ingenious twists on the story we all know, including a new plot development concerning wolf-leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Shere Khan – and even creates a backstory for Mowgli which explains how he got that modesty-preserving loincloth of his.
It’s not a musical and yet the deployment of two famous songs – The Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You – feels easy and natural. Actually, the film emphatically revives Kipling’s poem The Law of the Jungle with its collective all-for-one ethic: “The strength of the pack is the wolf/And the strength of the wolf is the pack.” Baloo prefers songs to poems and calls that one “propaganda”.
Interestingly, where the first film finally sticks to a never-the-twain-shall-meet attitude to humans’ long-term cohabitation with animals, this one posits the idea of living together happily (though that size of loincloth can’t last for ever). As I said, this sacrifices the original’s bittersweet acknowledgment that Mowgli must one day grow up and look for romance.
But what a tremendous success this is. The Jungle Book 2.0 is the unexpected treat of the week.