A few years ago, it seems that Disney ran out of ideas – or rather – it wanted to minimize risk. After the failure of films like John Carter, The Lone Ranger, and Mars Needs Moms, Disney took to their reliable stable of classics to reinvigorate themselves by remaking themselves. In recent years, we’ve seen Sleeping Beauty remade from the story of its villain with Maleficent, an attempt to make Walt Disney the hero of Mary Poppins in Saving Mr. Banks, as well as a pretty straightforward live-action retelling of Cinderella. Look at the Wikipedia page of future Disney films and you’ll find over two dozen sequels, retellings, and reimaginings scheduled, with hardly any unknown entities in the bunch.
A film like Maleficent or Cinderella might show us a well-known story through the eyes of someone else, giving us bigger understanding at the story at hand and expand the world further than we ever knew before. This isn’t essential to the retelling of stories, but it makes it all the more obvious when a film comes along that doesn’t really add anything. Why tell it again if there’s nothing new to be said, no more story to be told?
Disney’s animated films have mostly targeted either princesses, the world of nature, or occasionally both. Disney has shown us that they can remarked princesses quite well, but The Jungle Book is their first attempt at live-action nature within this new mentality, and it could use some work. When the most revelatory information that The Jungle Book can tell us of this over one hundred-year-old story is how Mowgli got his infamous red shorts, it raises the question of what the point of this remake could possibly be.
In The Jungle Book, a human child named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is raised by wolves after being found by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) alone in the jungle. When Shere Khan (Idris Elba) discovers the presence of the boy, he demands Mowgli is brought to him. To save the boy, Bagheera takes Mowgli on a journey back to the human camp, while on the way he meets all sorts of creatures that he never encountered in his years in the jungle before.
As gorgeous as director Jon Favreau can make the jungles that Mowgli resides in, The Jungle Book still feels more animated than real. The Jungle Book was shot in Los Angeles in a studio and it never pretends to be anything than a false world. It’s luscious vistas would likely come off as real if it weren’t for the one real thing in the film – Mowgli – didn’t look like he had been digitally added into the jungle. Every time he moves – which is a lot – it’s almost as if you can see his outline where he’s been cut and pasted into this world.
Yet the world that Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks (whose last film was the horrifically bad Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li) created ever quite maintains any real continuity, both in terms of environment or film they want to tell; the style changes wildly (pun intended) throughout the film. When Mowgli runs into King Louie – played by a thinly-veiled Christopher Walken doing his best Colonel Kurtz – he is threatened into teaching the gigantic monkey about fire. When Mowgli tells the monkey king that he cannot, Louie then bursts into “I Wanna Be Like You,” which then a few minutes later turns into a straight-up horror film, as Louie chases down Mowgli, in a way that will surely shock younger viewers.
The Jungle Book feels as if Favreau and Marks are under the impression that they are doing something new with their retelling, but by shoehorning in the various elements from the animated 1967 film, The Jungle Book rarely gets the opportunity to tell its own story. When The Jungle Book adds in elements like Baloo (Bill Murray) singing “Bare Necessities” or the appearance of Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), it’s almost like an attempt to fit in all the disparate elements that worked before, but without adding anything new or even considering what would be best for this live-action adaptation.
The voice-acting in The Jungle Book is superb, however, as Murray couldn’t be more perfect as the lovable bear Baloo and Elba as Shere Khan creates the most terrifying version of this character ever created. Even right down to minor characters, like Giancarlo Esposito as Mowgli’s adopted wolf father Akela the late Garry Shandling as a porcupine, the animal creatures within The Jungle Book are what seem the most real. Sethi as the young Mowgli is fine, considering that he’s likely acting against nothing, but he’s not exactly spectacular either.
It’s not as if Disney’s retelling its past stories is a terrible idea – it’s what people know about the studio and can be handled in fairly interesting ways. But when the original is held with kid gloves, with a fear of trying anything too drastic, or far off the beaten path, remaking these films is less “play with what works” and more “just tell what already worked.” Because of that, Favreau is sort of the perfect choice to tell this story, as he’s a chameleon to whatever story he’s been assigned to direct next. Yet with his last film Chef, Favreau embraced the idea of reinventing the known into something exciting and new, despite being familiar. If only he had heeded his own advice in his return back to big-budget fare that could use some of that revitalization.