Less than a decade ago, “live-action Disney” meant The Game Plan, College Road Trip, and Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Then the success of 2010’s Alice in Wonderland taught the studio they could dust off an animated classic, give it the live-action treatment modern CGI afforded, and rake it the big bucks. The six years since have brought about live-action adaptations of Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and now, 1967’s The Jungle Book.
Of course, long before The Jungle Book was Disney’s nineteenth “Animated Classic,” it was a cherished collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling. To its credit, Jon Favreau’s take on Kipling’s tales mostly goes the latter as its source whenever a choice is called for, resulting in a tale with a more suitably dark tone. Unfortunately, rather than be allowed to become its own creation, The Jungle Book too often gets needlessly muffled by paying tribute to its animated forebear.
Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is the man-cub raised by wolves in the Indian jungles. Shere Khan (Idris Elba) is the human-hating tiger who demands Mowgli’s death. Baloo (Bill Murray) takes life with a grain of hakuna matata, King Louie (Christopher Walken) wishes he were human, and Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) watches out for Mowgli while Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) tries to eat him. All the characters you know are accounted for and — with the exception of Walken, who lazily phones it in — every actor plays their roles with skill, power, and nuance.
Jon Favreau, who cut his teeth directing exceptional family fare like Elf and Zathura before tackling Marvel movies, shows immense growth here as a visual artist. The Jungle Book is not just the best-looking movie he’s made, but the most competently arresting movie Disney’s filmed in half a decade.
Of special note are Favreau’s loving tips of the hat to the artistic style of 1967’s The Jungle Book and other Disney works of that decade (especially with clever use of foreground silhouettes). But sadly, that admiration, or almost devotion, to the animated classic is also what holds this version back.
Despite the Disney brand slapped all over the packaging, Favreau’s film truly wants to be a darker, more faithful-to-the-book adaptation of Kipling’s work more than anything else. And it achieves it remarkably quickly, with considerable craft. But it doesn’t take long before you can almost feel Disney’s studio heads poking their noses into the screenwriter Justin Marks’ room, with suggestions of “Don’t forget to add a Pumbaa character in there, to appeal to millennials!” or “It’s getting too serious; have them break into a song now!”
While the 1967 movie was, as many animated Disney movies are, a musical, it served the structural purpose of taming the source material for children and keeping tots humming through the scarier parts of the story. With Favreau’s more mature take on the material, though, something like “The Bare Necessities” belongs here about as much as Tom Bombadil’s song-and-dance numbers would’ve in Peter Jackson’s take on The Lord of the Rings.
Each time a character starting whistling a tune or has a “hilarious” pratfall, The Jungle Book undoes a bit of the hard work it’s achieved, taking one step back for every three or four forward. Granted, that’s ultimately not the worst ratio in the world, but it’s particularly aggravating just because of how unnecessary (and, in fact, superfluous) its occasional steps back are.
Favreau’s The Jungle Book is its own worst enemy, but let’s not forget that the 1967 movie isn’t flawless, either. 2016’s version has different flaws, and they’re more disappointing just because of how pointless their existence is, but this version’s at least the equal to its half-century-old brother and, moreover, the best live-action adaptation of a Walt Disney Animated Classic yet.*
4 stars / 5
*(Of course, that’s not counting the still-to-come adaptations of Beauty and the Beast, 101 Dalmatians, Dumbo, Winnie-the-Pooh, Pinocchio, The Sword in the Stone, Mulan, Peter Pan, Aladdin, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the next few years. Yes, seriously.)