One thing that irks me about Hollywood these days is the overwhelming amount of remakes that are churned out. We have become so inundated by reboots, retellings and retries that we sort of just accept it as the way things are. When a guy like Michael Bay sets out to ruin our childhood by butchering Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, we don’t get that upset about it because we expect to be disappointed.
My girlfriend tells me that I’m too cynical when it comes to movies and that is probably true to an extent, but often times these remakes are shameless cash grabs. There’s no effort to honor the spirit of the original story or to enhance it in any way, because they know people will go see it regardless of how much care is taken to produce a quality film. The same could’ve easily been true for The Jungle Book and considering how difficult it must be to create a successful live-action adaptation of a boy hanging out with talking animals, I’d say my skeptical attitude was well-founded.
Which is why it thrills me to admit that The Jungle Book is the rare remake that put all of those fears to rest. There’s no better feeling than to brace yourself for the worst and then receive the best.
Jon Favreau was the perfect choice to direct this because he excels at breathing new life into long forgotten and unknown material. You think anyone other than diehard comic book fans cared about Iron Man before Favreau reintroduced him to the world? Maybe he’s so good at it because he has fond memories of growing up with this story, like the rest of us. Or maybe he just has an innate understand of storytelling, an overused term that strangely enough is constantly sacrificed for fancy visuals and special effects. Whatever the reason, it’s obvious that Favreau cares a lot about The Jungle Book, because he makes us remember why we care about it too.
It helps that he enlists the services of a veteran cast to portray the animals. Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito combine for a wonderful and diverse mixture of characters. When a kid is the hero of your film, I think you need proven commodities surrounding him to convey a sense of authority and The Jungle Book has that in spades. I especially enjoyed Elba as the villainous tiger Shere Khan, proving yet again that he is one of the most underrated actors in the game. However, in my mind there are two indispensable performances that if subtracted would torpedo the whole movie: Bill Murray as Baloo and newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli.
Mowgli seems like an obvious choice. After all, he is the protagonist and the sole reason that we have a story here in the first place. Sethi delivers everything that is required of the role, including bravery, stubbornness and a kind disposition toward his friends in the jungle. You get the bare necessities and yes, they sing the song too. Then you remember that he’s the only live actor in a world full of computer animation and motion capture, and it blew me away that someone so young could immerse himself so effortlessly into a make believe jungle. Sure, lots of kids have extraordinary imaginations, but it takes a kid with a lot of talent to make us believe that he’s actually interacting with these animals. Do you realize how badly this would’ve sucked if Sethi was like Anakin Skywalker from The Phantom Menace?
As for Murray, his dry-wit and carefree demeanor embody the spirit of Baloo. Kids will love him because he’s funny. Adults will love him because he keeps things light-hearted in an otherwise solemn atmosphere, and as you get older you appreciate how valuable a friend like that is. I don’t think anyone could’ve done that as well as Murray did (yes, he sings the song too).
The Jungle Book is a refreshing reminder that not all remakes have to be uninspired and a waste of time. Favreau’s love for the original Disney version shines through in every frame, and my guess is he wanted to pass on that memorable experience to the next generation. What I didn’t count on was the lengths Favreau would go to in order to preserve something that meant so much to older generations, including the cynical curmudgeons like me.
I knew The Jungle Book was good when kids in the audience were laughing and singing along to the songs. I knew it was great when I looked over and my girlfriend was too.
Jesse’s Rating: A