‘The Jungle Book’: Disney Proves its Live-Action Remakes Work
Disney‘s business model over the last few decades has been simple: Own and distribute everything we love. The Mouse has control over the Muppets, Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Marvel, putting it in a unique position when it comes to billion-dollar franchises. But none of the acquisitions are a part of the studio’s most ambitious project yet, and that’s the rebooting of its entire animated universe. The one caveat: It’s porting over all its classic cartoons into the realm of live action. The latest attempt to do this comes in the form of a surprisingly enjoyable reimagining of The Jungle Book.
The last attempt at a live-action remake from Disney was 2015’s Cinderella, a movie that prominently featured a story that’s been told ad nauseam in Hollywood over the last half-century. Smartly moving on to a property that’s been largely ignored since the original movie, the studio chose wisely with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The original movie was short on plot, high on catchy songs, and even higher on nostalgia among adults who’d inevitably bring their kids to see a remake in theaters.
This particular remake was nothing short of a stunning visual experience. If you have the means to see it in the full IMAX/3D format, we highly recommend shelling out the few extra bucks to do so. The film utilizes motion-capture technology to bring all its various animals to life, and the results are incredible. The biggest risk any live-action Jungle Book adaptation runs is having a bunch of real-life talking animals look too cartoonish or campy. Instead, the movie plunges you right in the middle of a lush, realistic jungle locale, accentuated by a 3D/IMAX format that never calls too much attention to itself.
Story-wise, The Jungle Book provides a much more sensible and cohesive narrative than its animated predecessor ever did. The original film’s story is thin to say the very least: A young boy raised by wolves wanders around the jungle, while being chased by an evil tiger that wants to kill him for reasons that are never made apparent. The live-action reboot adds some much-needed context, with the tiger Shere Khan holding a grudge against Mowgli over losing an eye to the boy’s father years ago (a twist delivered in a well-executed hypnotic vision brought on by Kaa the snake).
Where the movie slips can be found in the lack of true emotional weight. Lead actor Neel Sethi is a relative newcomer to Hollywood, and at the age of 10 his lack of experience is felt. Acting against tennis balls and green-screens is tough for seasoned actors like Ian McKellen, and asking the same out of an actor six-and-a-half decades younger is a tall order. At times, Sethi struggles to make many key moments feel genuine, something likely brought on by a combination of inexperience and the built-in difficulties of green-screen acting.
The DNA of the original Jungle Book can be seen and felt everywhere, albeit with tempered-down musical numbers. Most of the songs have been stripped out completely, with the exception of “The Bare Necessities” and King Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You.” The latter especially feels like an awkward addition, brought on by the appropriately bizarre performance of Christopher Walken as the gigantic king of the apes. The song elements made for an interesting dilemma overall: Ignore them completely and you lose the nostalgia and charm of the original, use too many and you have an awkwardly full-blown live-action musical. Splitting the difference by including the only two songs anyone remembers was really the best Disney could have done.
There’s a lot at stake here for Jon Favreau’s take on The Jungle Book. Disney has big plans for the rest of its live-action reboot universe, and a flop sends them back to the drawing board. Favreau managed to give us a well-adapted visual spectacle though, and even if it lacked depth at times, it was still an entirely enjoyable experience. It’s mercifully nothing close to the “dark, gritty reimagining” that’s taken over Hollywood, capturing just enough of the magic from its source movie. From here, things are looking up for Disney’s future adaptations.
The Jungle Book was released nationwide April 15, 2016.
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