The jungle is a dark and scary place. Oh, it didn’t really seem that way back in 1967. Then it was more of a swinging place full of quirky characters and memorable music. Almost fifty years later, however, things in the jungle have gotten a bit edgier and more dangerous; and yet, despite that, it’s still a place of fun adventures and warm friendships. Disney’s update of their own classic take on Rudyard Kipling’s short stories re-captures much of the magic of the animated original while adding the darker tone of the stories it was based on, and that mixture works really well; for the most part.
The opening scene sets the tone for this new Jungle Book perfectly; the score hints at the memorable music of the original as the camera pans through the dense jungle foliage. It’s beautiful and serene, and yet (perhaps because this time it’s not animated), there is an ominous sense of danger. Then Mowgli literally bursts onto the scene and the film is off and running. Again, by the mere fact that this time Mowgli isn’t just some cartoon character, there is a more pervading sense of danger as we watch this young scamp during his adventures in the jungle. Yet, despite that (or perhaps because of it) Mowgli’s new adventures are always a delight; they are in turns thrilling, funny, intense, adventurous, scary and heartwarming.
Indeed, perhaps this remake’s biggest flaw is just how much it’s beholden to its animated predecessor at times. Including “The Bear Necessities” song may seem like a necessity (see what I did there?), but it disrupts the flow of the movie just a bit. However, King Louie’s new rendition of “I Wanna Be Like You” is more problematic. Not only does it derail the film’s momentum, it undermines what was a very different and enjoyable take on King Louie. He was scary, and thanks to Christopher Walken’s perfect voicing, perhaps even a bit unbalanced and crazier than the animated, swing version. It made Mowgli’s scene with him quite uneasy, until the song starts and much of that sense of uncertain dread and danger is drained away. Pity. Those are the only two songs included. Kaa’s “Trust In Me” plays during the credits, as does a fuller version of King Louie’s song, and this seems like it would have been the right place for it, as opposed to shoehorning it into the film itself.
Those minor flaws aside, the rest of the film is a rollicking adventure as Shere Kahn mercilessly tries to exact his revenge on the young man-cub. While the wolf pack initially wants to defend him, they’re challenged with the question of how many lives is the young man-cub worth? It’s a threatening and thought-provoking question; exactly what is a life worth? It should come as no surprise that the Bible addresses that very issue. There’s a very interesting verse in Isaiah 40:2 where it says that Lord has paid double the price for all our sins. That’s rather fascinating, as basically what’s being inferred there is whatever our lives may be worth (and considering that Jesus eventually died on a cross for our sins, it’s quite a lot), God was willing to pay twice as much because of his great love for us. What is your life worth? It’s worth double to God. How many lives is your life worth? It was worth the life of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ. In short, to God we are worth a lot, and then a whole lot more. The Bible even talks about how Satan, like some sort of demonic Shere Kahn, stalks like a lion those he might devour (1 Peter 5:8), but God is always there to put his life for ours and to keep the lion (or tiger for the sake of a Jungle Book analogy) at bay.
As for the worthiness of Disney’s “live action” remake of the Jungle Book (“live action” is in quotes because Neel Sethi is pretty much the only “live action” part of the film), this truly is another worthy addition in Disney’s growing catalog of animated-to-live-action remakes. It’s easy to assume that celebrity voices are used just for box office draw or as stunt casting, and while some of that may be true here, the fact is all of these celebrity voices are pitch perfect. From Sir Ben Kingsley’s noble Bagheera to Idris Elba’s refined and frightening fierce Shere Kahn to Scarlett Johannsen’s spooky and seductive Kaa to Christopher Walken’s on the verge of crazy King Louie, all of the voices work well for the characters and never distract. And as for Bill Murray, it’s no easy to task to fill in for the great Phil Harris (just ask John Goodman), but he makes the role of Baloo his very own and brings some much needed levity, heart and humor to the film; just as Baloo should. Despite my skepticism (which you think would have dissipated after Disney proved themselves with Cinderella), this new Jungle Book is a worthy, and dare I say at times an even better, predecessor to the beloved animated original.