Disney continues its merciless rampage of adapting every single one of its classic animated films into live-action remakes and, this time, it's The Jungle Book's turn. Jon Favreau directs an all-star cast of voice actors and a young newcomer in what promises to be a CGI visual treat.
Indeed, pretty much everything in this movie is CGI from the talking animals to the jungle itself so if it's "realism" you're looking for, you might want to go for the 1994 live-action retelling instead. The film follows certain key plot points from the original 1967 animation but it definitely takes a lot of liberties with both the story and its characters. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) willingly walks away from his wolf pack before wondering why he has to leave and later comes back to fight Shere Khan which leads to a very different ending. Speaking of which, the unnerving build-up to Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) is now gone and we see the villainous tiger pretty much straight-away: he is given several jump scares instead. Another change is how Baloo (a perfect Bill Murray) essentially just uses Mowgli to get honey, which arguably diminishes their friendship. Frankly, most of the changes here aren't very good save for the elephants, who are put to much better use.
The voice cast, admittedly, is excellent: Ben Kingsley nails the Bagheera role, Elba makes an intimidating Shere Khan, Murray is inspired as Baloo and Scarlett Johansson does well as Kaa, even if the character is given nothing to do except randomly deliver exposition. Then there's Christopher Walken as King Louie and from the moment he appears you start to think that maybe Jon Favreau made this movie just so he could turn Walken into an orang-utan and make a cowbell joke. His rendition of "I Wanna Be Like You" is about as bizarre as you'd expect but this, again, proves to be an ingenious casting choice. The same can't be said for the only truly live-action character Mowgli, played by Neel Sethi. The young actor does try to get across the charm and naivety of the man-cub but falls short performance-wise coming off as awkward most of the time, probably because he's acting against a green-screen. The script, which is packed with corny lines and modern-day expressions, doesn't help.
You can't expect Disney to stay completely true to the old classic, of course. I did not think for a second that Baloo would dress up like an ape and start dancing around with Christopher Walken, for example. By making the animals look sort of real, however, that makes the musical numbers stand out as rather odd and out of place since they can't exactly move to the right rhythm or smile so maybe leaving the songs out of it would have been a wiser, if more daring, choice. The 1967 film was about growing-up and how you can't escape it, how it catches up with you even if you were planning to stay a kid and have fun forever. This remake instead goes for the old "be yourself" message by changing the ending completely and that's simply infuriating. Add to that a new plot that's way more convoluted than it should be, far too many cute little creatures (though who can resist Garry Shandling as a porcupine?), CGI animals that look 20 feet tall and tonal inconsistencies and you've got yourself yet another unnecessary, inferior remake.
The fact that The Jungle Book is one of Disney's least awful live-action re-imaginings says a lot about their new habit. This is a flawed, forgettable effort that leeches on what made the original so good to try and hide its own blandness but, in the end, it fails to capture the same effortless magic and charm.
Bearly worth it.