The Jungle Book

Disney has taken recently to producing “live-action” remakes of their classic animated features. The trend began, I suppose, in 1996 with 101 Dalmatians, but it wasn’t until 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice that the House of Mouse got serious about the endeavor. Maleficent, a reworking of Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella followed in 2014 and 2105, respectively. This year we have The Jungle Book. Beauty and the Beast is set to come next year, and Dumbo, Pinocchio, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Mulan have all been announced. If the series continues to be as profitable as Alice in Wonderland—worldwide, the film made over $1B—there’s no reason to assume the trend won’t continue.

I put “live-action” in quotes to begin this review, because these films are as animated as they are live-action. They’re just animated using computers instead of pencils, pens, and paints. Most of the puppies in 101 Dalmatians are animated, and almost everything not a human being in Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent—and sometimes even the humans—are animated. In The Jungle Book, everything is CGI except Neel Sethi’s “Mowgli” and a few other nameless humans we briefly see. If we consider CGI a form of animation, then these new Disney films aren’t live-action remakes at all. They’re just remakes using today’s most advanced technology just as the original animated films used the most advanced technology of their days. (Disney animators Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas’ landmark book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation is a must-read if you’re interested in the history of animation and its perpetual marriage to the forward edge of filmmaking technology.)

Will you enjoy The Jungle Book? If you enjoy the 1967 hand-drawn film, probably so. The new film is a faithful adaptation of that animated film. The story is almost exactly the same. There are few less songs, but there are songs you’ll recognize. And director Jon Favreau (Zathura, Iron Man 1 and 2) and cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix trilogy, Sam Raimi’s—who has a cameo in the film as the voice of a squirrel—Spider-Man films) even recreate some of the most iconic images from the 1967 film. The voice-acting is excellent, especially Idris Elba’s “Shere Kahn” and Christopher Walkins’ “King Louis.” This new The Jungle Book is lots of fun.

The animation in this film is truly remarkable. Like the tiger and other animals in Life of Pi, these jungle beasts have been rendered so strikingly, you might think they substituted real animals for fake ones in a few shots. The cost of rendering these animals and this environment must be monumental—way more expensive than using real animals and real locations, if you could get real animals and locations to cooperate, that is—and I guess that’s why Disney set this film up so clearly for a sequel. The up-front cost is great, and CGI sequels are much cheaper to make.

I’m okay with that if the future Jungle Book films are as entertaining as this one. Favreau and company use the freedom offered by CGI to stage some spectacular actions scenes that were impossible in hand-drawn animation. Mowgli jumps and swings through the jungle with agility similar to the way Tarzan moves through the jungle in Disney’s 1999 animated version of that story. It’s terrific to watch, though I’d avoid the 3D if I were you. It adds little and makes following the action a tad difficult.

To engage with this movie theologically would be to risk turning it into an object lesson. The movie does play up the jungle mythology more so than the previous version, and you could glean some god-talk from that, but that’s not really what the movie is interested in. It just wants you to have fun. It succeeds at that.

From the film’s trailer, I feared that this version would surrender the neat conversations in Kipling’s story and Disney’s 1967 movie to the need to include more action. I didn’t need to be concerned. This The Jungle Book maintains Mowgli’s search for how to be a person who is both man-born and jungle-raised. It settles the conflict differently than the original film, but hey, we gotta get that sequel, right?

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