When I first heard the news that Disney was set to revamp another classic, The Jungle Book, into live-action, I was unimpressed. Even the fact that Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Elf) was helming the project wasn’t enough to raise my spirits.
Sitting in my seat two days after its release, feeling the arm of the man to my left, a squirming little girl on my right, her father next to her lit up by his phone screen throughout half the movie, I not only lamented that I hadn’t been able to score a ticket from the sold-out night before, but I regretted even signing up to see this film in the first place. Because, surely, no cinematic experience is worth what I was going through to see a remake of a film I’d never even liked that much to begin with.
And then, as soon as I’m ready cut my losses, a cel-painted Sleeping Beauty castle beneath hand-painted fireworks appears backed by a reorchestrated Disney theme, and the whole scene feels like I’m 5 years old again watching the 1967 animated film on my bedroom floor.
Perhaps I’m alone in this sentiment, but up until this point, I’ve been severely disappointed by Disney’s attempt at preying upon the sentimental side of people my age. Besides a lack of originality, although they seem to have no trouble churning out at least one hit a year, these remakes tend to be pointless. Why watch a green screen-happy mess with lesser acting when you can just watch the timeless classics? Furthermore, why would you want to watch a small boy run around a CGI jungle with animals whom trailers only enforced the fake quality of?
The answer is very simple: The trailers did not do this film justice one iota. From the first moment Neel Sethi as “man-cub” Mowgli tumbles onto the screen following the nostalgic intro, there’s hardly ever a sense that he’s anywhere but the jungles of Asia. The line between the fake backgrounds and supporting characters and the only living, breathing actor on set is instantly blurred.
The Jungle Book is Sethi’s breakout role, whose only previous credit is from the comedy short Diwali, but you wouldn’t be able to guess that from this performance alone. With a gullible nature and a childlike sense of invulnerability, Sethi’s Mowgli is every bit of the conflicted boy he’s supposed to be — perhaps even more so.
Despite its classic feel, this live-action comfortably straddles the fence between gratuitous pandering and boundary pushing realism. Yes, the film is a mature take on what was purely a children’s story, but Favreau stays true to the film’s Disney roots and provides a film that audiences of all ages can enjoy. Because under every animated classic was a heartfelt adventure that connected us all and presented a universal message. It’s that reason why those such films have stood the test of time.
Luckily for Sethi and Favreau, joining the project was just about the most perfect voice acting cast you could possibly imagine in the history of animated films — and I don’t say that lightly. From the fatherly-sounding Brit Ben Kingsley as Bagheera the panther to Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha, the wolf who raises Mowgli, each actor morphs into their character, sounding less like him or herself by the end of the film and becoming more synonymous with their animal.
But, since no perfect film exists, perhaps among Favreau’s few regrets should be two things: not giving Scarlett Johansson’s snake Kaa more screen time, an understandable yet painful decision, and having Christopher Walken’s King Louie actually sing the “I Wanna Be Like You” song in a scene that utterly lacks the same 1967 magic and humor.
But let’s be real, everyone did a ‘fantastic’ job save for one person, who pretty much superseded all expectations: Idris Elba, regal and menacing as Shere Khan the tiger. As soon his outline enters the first frame, blocking out the sun on a clifftop, it’s a shot that, critically and personally, is one of the most memorable in the entire film and suits the tiger’s nature — an entrance that’s neither too subtle nor too flashy. In fact, the tiger itself doesn’t have to do much with Elba’s sensuous growling voice and commanding presence.
“Have I got your attention now?” he says to the wolf pack, after hurtling wolf pack leader Akela over a cliff with his teeth alone. It’s an intense moment that is only rivaled by the point at which Mowgli embraces Raksha in the rain, after he has decided to leave the jungle to escape Khan’s wrath. And from this point, your eyes certainly will never leave him as long as he’s on the screen.
Screenwriter Justin Marks had the daunting task of adapting a timeless story, and he accomplishes the impossible of creating a remake that can hold its own against the original. Between the expressiveness of the animals — it’s all in the eyes — and the emotive storytelling, The Jungle Book is a worthy classic for a new generation of Disney lovers, who will likely grow up with this adaptation rather than the 1967 film. A heart wrenching thought, but at least they’re in good hands.
Follow Sara Snoddy on Twitter at @Sara_Snoddy.
To contact Lifestyles editor Tanner Dedmon email firstname.lastname@example.org.