I start this review with a confession… I don’t like Disney’s animated version of The Jungle Book. To me, even as a child, it was a barely connected series of Mowgli shorts that you could have cut up and rearranged in any order and you would have had the same basic movie. It also didn’t help that it was cheap-looking and, now that I’m older and can recognize it, pretty darned racist.
About a year or so ago, I wrote a review of the live-action version of Cinderella. I didn’t care for it very much, deriding it for doing nothing new with the story or trying to improve it in any way. To me, Cinderella lost the case it was making for its own existence… The new version of The Jungle Book, however, not only makes a case for its own existence, but serves as an example of why remakes are a thing. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with a remake as long as that remake is an improvement over the original or at least does something drastically different with the source material. The remake of The Thing, for example, was brilliant. The remake of the remake of The Thing… not so much.
The live action remake of The Jungle Book is, in every way, a marked improvement over the Disney classic. For one, the obvious racism is gone which is a plus in my book. Secondly, the story flows a lot more organically… the random encounters from the animated movie are now steps on a journey with each step bringing Mowgli closer and closer to his inevitable confrontation with his nemesis, Shere Khan.
I’ll even take this review a step forward and say, children, The Jungle Book is not only a competent remake, it is a gosh-darn laudable film in its own right. Rarely has a fantasy adventure reached the levels of both fantasy and adventure that The Jungle Book reaches… it is wide-eyed and wonderful, a colorful and joyous spectacle that never loses its heart or its inclination simply to be fun. Every frame is a work of art, every character is a delight, and every moment is dazzling. The Jungle Book represents a milestone in special effects as every computer generated character, from wolf to bear to tiger to panther to whatever-the-hell those armored things are called, were rendered with such emotional depth and fantastic realism that I actually forgot a few times that I was watching special effects which is, if I’m not mistaken, what a hallmark of special effects is supposed to be.
It doesn’t hurt that this is one of the most impressive voice casts I’ve seen assembled in a long time either. Not a one of them phones it in either… not even Bill Murray who, let’s face it, has become notorious for phoning in his voice performances.
I’ve got to pause for a moment and talk about little Neel Sethi who plays Mowgli and shoulders the movie magnificently. This kid could have easily sunk the movie as he was apparently the only non-CGI thing in it, but he is not only tolerable, he’s really quite good and you find yourself rooting for him. Mowgli is a flawed character here, and I really enjoy that. He’s torn between who he’s expected to be and who he really is. He’s smart and capable, but vulnerable and incredibly over his head. He meets situations with believable fear and justifiable anger. Mowgli isn’t just “the kid from The Jungle Book,” Mowgli is the heart of The Jungle Book and Sethi plays the part admirably.
There is nothing quite as wonderful as the feeling you have leaving a film enjoying it far more than you were expecting to. If ever there is a case for the remake, this is it. It is not only an improvement to the original, it is a drastic improvement on every level that takes what works and makes it better while chucking out everything that doesn’t. This movie is adventure to its very core with heart and a zest for life and everything that makes a good movie a good movie. The Jungle Book is a stunning and beautiful triumph.