News that Disney had green-lit a live-action Jungle Book remake was met with disdain in 2013. Of course most major Hollywood announcements are met with disdain, but this struck a particular nerve given the classic status of both Rudyard Kipling’s book and Disney’s 1967 cartoon.
Clearly, from the perspective of the studio, the announcement had a lot to do with Ang Lee’s stunning Oscar-winner Life of Pi, and one of its stars — a photo-realistic, computer animated tiger. Technology is now at the level that makes a live action Jungle Book possible without several actors, crew and animal wranglers winding up in hospital.
As production neared, Disney slowly announced its cast, and with each addition my confidence in the picture grew. Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Scarlett Johnasson as Kaa, Christopher Walken as King Louie, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera — that’s an ensemble for the ages. Bill Murray as Baloo was the cherry on the icing on the cake, and, to use a dash of hyperbole perhaps, an all-time great piece of casting.
With the thoroughly capable hands of Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Elf) at the helm, everything was shaping up nicely in my view, but many remained sceptical.
Disney’s animation is revered with just cause. It’s iconic, but it’s important to remember that it took some serious liberties with the source material. Favreau’s film looks to both that film and 1894 anthology for inspiration, turning to the former for fun and the latter for a touch of darkness.
As the familiar Disney indent leads us into the jungle, the film starts with a chase sequence starring young Mowgli (debutant Neel Sethi), his wolf-pup kin and Kingsley’s Bagheera. It’s a pulsating start that primes its audience for a great many more thrilling set pieces.
A lot was asked of 12-year-old Sethi – who for long periods is the only ‘real’ thing in the frame – tasked as he was with interacting with a lot of green screen and a cast of non-existent (at the time of filming) characters. In the face of this, the charismatic youngster does great work. He may, on occasion, seem a little lost acting opposite a tennis ball or something from the bag of special effects trickery — but in no way is it ultimately detrimental to the film.