It comes as no small surprise that The Jungle Book is not only a marvellous film in its own right, but also worthy successor to its animated predecessor.
Director Jon Favreau takes the ‘60s Disney classic as the inspiration for this remake – rather than returning to the source, Rudyard Kipling’s darker original tales. Our protagonist is once again the young orphan Mowgli, raised by wolves in the Indian jungle under the watchful eye of black panther Bagheera, until the vengeful tiger Shere Khan returns to their part of the jungle eager to eliminate the young ‘man cub’.
Revisiting what to many represents the zenith of Disney’s staple of animations is no small feat, and Favreau has clearly set about it carefully. His take on the film extracts those elements essential to appease fans, while paying at least lip service to those that the film can manage without.
Even in revisiting the original’s most popular moments, this new take is never slavish in its faithfulness. King Louis is here reimagined as an impossibly gargantuan mob boss, played with relish by Christopher Walken, lurking in the shadows and offering protection – for a price. The snake Kaa returns for a single, powerful scene, Scarlett Johannson purring rather than hissing through a seductive speech, played for threat rather than comic relief.
She’s just one element of the cartoonishness stripped back here, replaced instead by a sense of the jungle as mythic, larger than life and full of unseen wonder. From King Louis’s heaving, colossal frame to the raw power of a stampede of water buffalo, the wilderness is a force beyond Mowgli’s – and the audience’s – understanding. In one of the few direct nods to Kipling’s text the elephants become the embodiment of this ethos, taking on an almost divine role in the animalistic pantheon, imbued with a sense of quiet wonder.
John Debney’s score was always going to be one of the most heavily analysed elements of the remake, and like the film itself it strikes a delicate balance between mining nostalgia and setting its own path. ‘Bear Necessities’ and ‘King of the Swingers’ both make the obligatory appearances, but each is reworked with a raw, organic take, Bill Murray and Walken respectively stripping the vocals back until they’re almost spoken. Debney reworks these themes, and others, into the score, refrains from each occasionally floating above the CGI bustle even during the film’s intense set-pieces.
Much has been said of the star-studded cast, and they ably do their part. Murray and Walken play, well, Murray and Walken, but that’s rarely something to complain about. Ben Kingsley brings sublimely mannered frustration to Bagheera, but Idris Elba carves out his own territory. Gone is the refined, sinister threat – this beast is all savagery and fury, his brutish manner as fearsome as his scarred, burnt face. The real revelation here is Neel Sethi however, who as Mowgli must carry much of the film as its sole human presence. To see a child actor with such warmth and depth is always a welcome surprise, but to see him carry the film acting opposite solely CGI creations is pretty astonishing stuff.
The Jungle Book is, wisely, no attempt to recapture the singular magic of the illustrated original. Instead, this is its own beast – wild, savage, and as likely to inspire awe as it is simple joy. And it’s still more than enough to reduce anyone to heaving sobs when it decides it wants to.
Words by Dominic Preston