The new Jungle Book film is not quite a remake - but not quite original

With its lush CGI landscapes, The Jungle Book is a visual treat. But the film is conflicted as to its own status as a reboot.

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In an industry that reboots the same stories every five years (yes, I’m looking at you, Spider-Man), it seems positively slothful for Disney only now to be taking its fourth bite of the Mr Kipling cake. The Jungle Book was the final animated movie that Walt Disney worked on – it was released in October 1967, ten months after his death – and it looks now like a pop-culture time capsule, with its beatnik Baloo and its Liverpudlian moptop vultures. In between that and a 2003 animated sequel, the studio put out a worthy adaptation in 1994 which seemed to apologise both for Rudyard Kipling’s imperialism and for not being a cartoon.

The latest version is directed by Jon Favreau, who has a knack for fizzy family entertainment (Elf) while also knowing the blockbuster market (he made two Iron Man movies). In combining computer animation and live action, Favreau’s Jungle Book seems initially to represent the best of both worlds. He found a sprightly newcomer, Neel Sethi, then aged ten, to play Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves after ­being orphaned in the jungle. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Sethi, the only non-CG presence in the film, interacts so naturally with characters who aren’t really there. Isn’t that what ten-year-olds spend most of their time doing anyway? His reactions to his digital co-stars, though, are ­every bit as vital to the suspension of disbelief as anything done behind the scenes by the pipeline software developers and the senior fur groomers.

No part of the production ever left the studio lot but you wouldn’t know it. The density and detail of the jungle are rendered sensuously by digital effects experts culled in part from the teams behind Gravity, Life of Pi and Avatar, and by the cinematographer Bill Pope. The only jarring image is the opening shot, which retreats from Disney’s Cinderella castle logo and into the undergrowth – as though Disneyland itself had been built right on the edge of the jungle. The rest of the landscape is tonally precise, with patchworks of moist fronds giving way to labyrinths of creepers or opening on to golden plains.

Mowgli leaps between trees as breezily as if he were playing playground hopscotch. He abseils while wrapped in a vine, then drifts downriver on Baloo’s upturned belly like a holidaymaker on a swimming-pool Li-lo. Passed over the heads of wittering monkeys, he could be a crowd-surfer at a Metallica concert.

The 1967 Jungle Book was one of the first animated films not only to feature stars among its voice cast but to use them partly as inspiration for the look of the characters: there was barely a whisker’s difference between George Sanders in All About Eve and the same actor as the tiger Shere Khan. As Baloo, there’s not much that Bill Murray can add to Phil Harris’s work in the way of easygoing bonhomie, but other performers have more scope. Scarlett Johansson is seductive as Kaa the snake, Ben Kingsley coolly understated as Bagheera the panther. Idris Elba strikes notes of insidious menace in the Sanders role.

There’s a lack of showboating among the cast with the exception of Christopher Walken, who brings to King Louie the full force of his wacko speech patterns. (Let me tell you the secret of Walken’s unique delivery: when he receives a script, he crosses out all the punctuation.) Louie now appears to be some kind of mafioso, promising protection to Mowgli (“For a price!”) in return for the gift of fire. For reasons of authenticity, he is also a Gigantopithecus. Things have come to a pretty pass when audiences will accept a boy running honey-grabbing errands for a bear but cry foul at an orang-utan in the wrong part of India.

Walken gets to sing “I Wan’na Be Like You” and proves that it’s no mean feat to squeeze the word “Gigantopithecus” into a song lyric. But although Favreau has insisted that his version of The Jungle Book is no remake, that argument looks shaky in the presence of numbers from the earlier film. (“The Bare Necessities” is also here, performed by Murray.) There will be inconsistencies, I suppose, in any film that goes to great lengths to depict the savagery and exoticism of the jungle, only to anthropomorphise the animals that live there. Mowgli is torn between being a boy and being a wolf, and the film has conflicts of its own. Neither fully a musical nor a motion picture without songs, it’s not quite a remake and not exactly original. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater