The first of two remakes of the Disney classic, it smashed at the box office and seems to have been accepted by the critics but in case you’re somehow unaware of it, here’s a brief summary: after being orphaned to the jungle Mowglie (Neel Sethi) has been brought up by the wolves and a panther, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) but when a tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba) threatens his life, he must flee and discover if he has a place in the jungle. With the voice work of Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken and Lupita Nyong’o.
There’s no denying there’s some big names in this film and certainly some big voices that are unmistakeable, most of whom are no stranger to voice work and there isn’t a particular actor that you can pick out and say that they don’t fit. Those that do especially fit however are Elba and Johansson, the anger, resentment and aggression that Elba can portray with his voice is perfect for our villain and added to the ferocious tiger with a scarred face, it’s fairly perfect. Johansson as Kaa is another dead on choice, her silky smooth and yet with a little of that old-fashioned blues rasp to it, it’s entirely hypnotic just as it should be and the updated CGI definitely gives the character a much more fearful appearance. One problem despite the great choices is the conundrum of making the characters live action and actually believable looking animals, is that the voices begin to feel less integrated and almost detached from the animal, as though it’s just two things happening at the same time. Sethi as our only actor does well, he’s completely new to film and considering that he was working with green screen alone it’s undeniably impressive, which makes it seem unfair to criticise but still there are improvements to be made, that connection and sympathy for Mowglie feels a lot weaker. There’s less a sense of seeing the world through his eyes, rather of being present for his adventure, taking something away from the film as a whole.
The real success of the film is that it has remade a classic without huge backlash and brought it into this century using fantastic CGI, of course not to the point where you can’t tell the difference between reality and fiction but close enough that it works well. Based off that point, the film is visually magnificent and pushes to the limit of how well CGI can be used to make something that would be impossible in reality (because Sethi would most likely be eaten by several animals). The second factor is that it does follow the original story without straying too far into trying to make it something different and new, it’s taking the old material and reshaping it for the current generation, having said that there is still a major change in tone. The film delves more into darker territory, playing on the dangers of the jungle but that somewhat overbears the fact that it should be a fun, musical but the musical element feels very much secondary in this case. The film is still fun but that derives more from the comedy and well written lines, particularly from Baloo (Murray). A key component of the early Disney films was that there was always a curiosity and joy and that’s a very rare thing to find in modern versions, and certainly taking the film in a darker direction made that more difficult but it does come through with aspects of Mowglie’s character but not throughout the story as a whole. The story itself, sticking close to the original, is a good one but considering the running time of 106 minutes, there still feels to be several lulls, in part due to the long journey to get to an ending that is fairly short lived.
It’s a rare thing that a film so beloved around the world for all ages can be remade and actually be received with a positive reaction but this one certainly went against the odds and made something respecting the original but bringing it into the modern world. The darker themes pull it slightly away from being more of a film for children which though perhaps makes the film more universal, changes the tone to a less happy affair and does not feel at all musical as a whole. But it’s undeniably, visually fantastic with great voice work.