MOVIE BUFF-ET: The Jungle Book is a classic tale told exceedingly well in Disney remake

Walt Disney Pictures

In recent years, Walt Disney Pictures has scored big at the box office with live-action versions of its animated classics, and it’s about to do it again with The Jungle Book.

Like others I questioned why even try to remake a certified classic like Disney’s 1967 animated adaption of Rudyard Kipling’s short stories featuring Mowgli the man-cub who was raised by wolves. I’m delighted to report that director Jon Favreau (Elf and Iron Man) showed me and any other doubter why.

Favreau and a talented group of CGI animators tell this tale so well that the film just sweeps you up into the adventure like few movies do. I went into the theater hopeful for a good experience, but I held some cynicism after reading that the movie is practically all CGI except for the performance by Neel Sethi, who makes his acting debut as Mowgli.

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While Disney films generally have grand production values, I was skeptical that the realistic CGI animation would convincingly pass for live action for the duration of the film. The movie washed away any skepticism very early in the film. The CGI is realistic in its depiction of the jungle environment and the anthropomorphic animals that interact with Mowgli, but it never trips itself up as it balances the talking animals in a pseudo-realistic environment. The CGI works so well that it never crossed my mind after my initial preconceived reservations melted away almost instantly.

No doubt part of the film’s charm stems from the excellent voice acting by a gaggle of stars. Ben Kingsley, who also narrates the tale as Bagheera the black panther, lends nobility to the film that only he could. Bill Murray as the bear Baloo is every bit as charming and funny as you would expect.

Idris Elba intimidates as the ruthless tiger Shere Khan, who will stop at nothing to get his claws on Mowgli. Scarlett Johansson delivers a seductively hypnotic voice performance as Kaa the giant python, who sees Mowgli as prey which deviates from Kipling’s stories as did Disney’s 1967 version.

Likewise Christopher Walken brings his own special brand of charisma and menace to his performance as King Louie, a character created for the earlier animated version. Saturday Night Live fans should look for the cowbell reference.

As fine as those voice performances are, this film could have been brought to its knees by a poor or even average performance by Sethi. The man-cub truly bears the weight of the movie on his small shoulders, but wow, does he deliver a totally convincing, naturalist and relatable performance that totally sells the movie.

Maybe it takes the imagination of a child to work so convincingly against imaginary creatures, but the young man did an excellent job bringing Mowgli to life and through his eyes, all the other characters become real to viewers.

The film does feature the tunes Bear Neccessities and I Wan ’Na Be Like You, popularized by the Disney’s first adaption. It could have been a risky choice, but again Favreau made it work within the fantasy world he built. I mean why wouldn’t a talking bear and orangutan sing, given the opportunity and inclination?

It may be a stretch when I referred to this movie as live-action, but Favreau should still be congratulated for weaving the real and unreal together in such a winning way. He drives home the allegorical points of Kipling’s short stories about family, society, kindness, duty, integrity and responsibility subtly, making them even more profound.

A children’s fantasy released in April isn’t the type of movie that usually garners Oscar buzz, but the movie is so well crafted, Favreau should at least garner some consideration for best director. Even if he doesn’t, I have a feeling his efforts are going to be rewarded grandly at the box office.

Classics Corner

The 1942 version of The Jungle Book is a decidedly different telling of Kipling’s story focusing on the more human aspects than the either of the Disney versions. Filmed and produced respectively by Hungarian brother Zoltan and Alexander Korda, the movie was a lavish fantasy for its period that was a box office hit.

The allegorical messages of the film still hold up, but some modern viewers might struggle with the special effects, which were state of the art for their day, but far from realistic. However, since the story does take a different path than the current version, it might be a fun movie for kids of all ages who want another helping of Mowgli’s adventures.

A teen actor by the name of Sabu plays a convincing, yet older version of Mowgli who lives among man in this story. Sabu also played key roles in 1940’s Thief of Bagdad and 1942’s Arabian Nights, all of which delve into somewhat similar fantasy worlds. Each have a certain charm and while Sabu would never be confused as a fine actor, he is likable and even admirable as an earnest underdog who becomes a hero in each of the films.

Like most movies of this vintage, pacing, acting style and production values are quite different from what we are accustomed to today, but the movie has thrills and heart if the viewer is patient enough to let it weave its brand of magic.

Gunga Din is a 1939 George Stevens production based on Kipling’s poem of the same name and portions of his short-story collection Soldiers Three. Set in India near the end of England’s colonial period, the film follows the exploits of three British sergeants played for adventure and laughs by Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Joan Fontaine is featured as Fairbanks’ love interest.

The brave water bearer Gunga Din, played by character actor Sam Jaffe, accompanies them on their exploits. Gunga Din longs to rise above his station and be a soldier for the empire.

The film is a rousing tale that has influenced scores of movies with its mixture of humor and adventure. Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom drew heavily from the 1939 classic.

If you are a fan of Cary Grant or adventure movies in general, the film is a must-see.