Revisiting Disney’s “The Jungle Book,” Live Action Style

In the past couple of years, Disney has re-made its classic animated films into live action cinematic features, with quite a bit of success; “Cinderella” was a beautiful, lush, romantic hit while “Maleficent” – not exactly a remake of “Sleeping Beauty – was a definite powerhouse. Now we have “The Jungle Book,” which is poised to delight fans of the animated original and make new fans along the way.

“The Jungle Book” follows the animated film quite closely and its fun and amazing to see favorite characters come to life: Bagheera, voiced majestically by Ben Kingsley; the happy-go-lucky (and master manipulator) Baloo, brought to life by Bill Murray; revenge driven Shere Kahn, menacingly spit out by Idris Elba, and King Louis, sounding more like the Godfather with Christopher Walken eradicating anything remotely stereotypical about the ape, now an enormous gigantopithecus (as there are no orangutans in India).

The film adds some new characters, first and foremost the wolf pack that raised the “mancub” Mowgli instead of Bagheera. They emphasize the Law of the Jungle, vocally and thematically. The movie is heavy on co-existence, first when the water supply is nearly depleted, and again when the animals come together to battle “the red flower” as well as their united defense of Mowgli. Other characters that have been transformed include Kaa, the snake. Fearing that the cast lacked in female presence, Kaa is now seductively voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

Mowgli, played by newcomer Neel Sethi, is perfectly wide-eyed, adventurous, loyal and inventive. Sethi’s expressions are remarkable, especially his eyes, which draw you right in to his perceptions of the jungle around him. It’s easy to believe the bonds he forges with the jungle creatures. Like the animals, viewers find something special about him, and don’t want him to go to the “man village” any more than the animals do.

Disney throws in quite a lot of homages to the animated original, including the songs. Yes, there’s the “Bare Necessities” and “I Want to Be Like You,” which when sung by Walken sounds like a threat – anything that was offensive about the original is eliminated by the violent life or death choice Louis threatens Mowgli with. There are also several Disney Easter Eggs to look for, nods to “Tarzan,” “The Lion King” and even “Sleeping Beauty.” While not a scene for scene remake, some of the more iconic images from the movie have been recreated. The best homage, however, is to the source material; this film is closer to the book than the animated film was.

The CGI is masterful, the animals and jungle appear so lifelike that it’s easy to suspend all disbelief. Though darker and a bit scarier than the original, children (and their parents) will delight in seeing everything come to vibrant life. There is also plenty of humor, both action based and in dialogue. Be sure to stay for the end credits, in which we actually see the book come to life while turning pages with surprises for those paying attention. You’ll also want to hear Kaa’s song, seductively sung by Scarlett Johansson. All said, “The Jungle Book” is a fine family movie treat. One can hope that the next Disney live action remake follows suit.

The film is dedicated to the late Garry Shandling, who, in one of his final roles, voiced the amusing porcupine Ikki.

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