Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky. And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die. As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk, the law runneth forward and back. For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack. That is the poetic and endearing lesson Disney’s new live-action jaunt The Jungle Book (2016) teaches us. It is not, however, the only lesson one may be lucky enough to learn by the end of the one-hour-and-forty-five minute sprawling CGI fest.
Re-imagining the 1967 animated classic, Jon Favreau’s story follows the tried and tested tale of Mowgli the man-cub, played by Newcomer Neel Sethi who owns the screen as the only live action performer. Raised by Raksha and Akela as part of their wolf pack, the young boy is forced to leave his wild Indian home when fearsome tiger Shere Khan threatens his way of life. Under the guidance of grandfather-esque panther Bagheera the man-cub sets off, meeting many a familiar face along the way. There’s Baloo the bear, a gender-swapped Kaa, and the monstrous Gigantopithecus King Louie. In the end though, despite his long-winded travels, Mowgli’s is a journey of self-discovery, facing not only the inevitable show-down to prove whether man or beast will rise victorious, but whether man and beast are really that different.
Visually the film is untouchable, with its grand scope and intricate attention to detail heralded by only a handful of other epics, such as James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). Blades of grass flicker, animals scamper, and water rushes through reeds with such believability you’d swear that you could simply reach out and touch it. Despite its April release date it would be a crime not to see the film nominated for a special effects gong come the 2017 Awards season. Interestingly, such visuals prove once and for all that you can create wondrous life-like portrayals without using animals, with director Jon Favreau receiving the PETA’s innovation in film award for not harming (or using) any animals during production.
The film also heralds a wonderful balance of homage towards the beloved animated original, while reiterating that, like Mowgli, the new film too must tread its own path. New twists and turns lie around every corner, from the incredible renditions of ‘The Bare Necessities’ and ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ to changes to the story involving characters such as Akela and Shere Khan. This is a more adult version, certainly, having drawn on tones from Apocalypse Now (1979). But it does not neglect its classic Disney routes either, with a strong link to The Lion King (1993) thanks to a thundering wildebeest stampede, a fallen father, a special ‘gathering’ rock, and a villainous feline with facial disfigurements. And as if you needed further proof, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment from the final fight scene, a Meerkat even rises onto its haunches beside a boar.
The core of the film though comes from the morals it instils within us, old and young alike. To respect our parents, whether they be our biological bearers or not. To value the friendships we form, no matter what obscure forms they come in. To protect the environment. To stand up for what we believe in. To not fall to greed, expectations, or trickery. Simply, to be ourselves. In this day and age it’s near impossible for a remake can outdo its predecessor, but with a focus on honour that’s exactly what The Jungle Book achieves.
Boasting a stellar ensemble cast of three Oscar’s winners and one nominee, the animals burst to life as characters and not simply plot devices. Bill Murray’s Baloo is a lovable larrikin that may not be the best rendered creature, but is one of the most memorable. Praise must also be heaped on Sir Ben Kingsley’s Bagheera, who channels every fed-up parent who's ever rolled their eyes at their mischievous child. On the more disappointing end are the one-dimensional villains, such as Idris Elba’s Shere Khan. While you cannot fault his menacing appearance, and thundersome deep British brogue, he is never fully fleshed out to the truly terrifying beast he could have been. Kaa the slippery and seductive snake also marks a fantastic equality change from the 1967 original male persona to Scarlett Johansson’s husky tones. However it’s a shame that she feels so seriously underused.
It is hard to find fault with a film so finely tuned. You could say that it’s 'just another remake'. You could say that some of the fight scenes are too darkly lit to enjoy the tension and action. You could even say that there are moments were the plot drags a little. But, if after twenty minutes you can only come up with three examples, then maybe it really is just a good, old-fashioned family flick. So, if you do yourself the pleasure of watching the film, take note of the book in the closing credits. It’s the same one that opened the 1967 animated film, and which intriguingly never closed it. Here, it finally receives its last hoorah, acknowledging how the story of a young boy who unites the jungle can really transcend time.
Rating: 4 Protective Bagheeras out of 5
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