"Remake" is not usually a good word. "Live-action adaptation", when the source material is a cartoon, is a risky endeavor that sometimes works and sometimes flops hard. A film wherein the only actor is a child, supported only by the voices of more notable names, is a hard sell. Talking animals in a live-action remake movie is an even harder sell. Yet The Jungle Book rises above these uncertain odds and turns out a surprisingly solid piece of entertainment.
The Jungle Book adheres closely, but not religiously, to the Disney classic from the 1960's, even throwing in a few snippets of the classic songs. In many ways, it's inaccurate to call this film a "live-action" adaptation, when only the character of Mowgli is in fact live-action, with all the rest being computer-animated to resemble reality. It's really only slightly less animated than its 1960's predecessor, but its imitation of reality is nearly flawless in its execution.
I can remember a time when animated movies contained one, or maybe two
at most, recognizable voices, but that seems to be a day long-gone, and
now well-known actors are expected to be behind the animated faces.
Seemingly strange choices on voice casting turn out to be exceptionally
effective here. For example, Christopher Walken's distinct voice works
extremely well as King Louie, who is re-imagined into a sort of crime
boss (think Jabba the Hutt-- not the main villain, but a dangerous force
to contend with all the same). Idris Elba shines as a much darker, more
intensely fierce Shere Khan than the 1960's English imperialist
portrayal. Scarlett Johansson's brief part as Kaa the python is
chillingly effective and significant despite its brevity; a noted
departure from the clumsy and comical snake shown in the old version.
Every actor featured does a superb job, enhancing rather than
distracting from the story and setting.
On a narrative level, The Jungle Book successfully gives gravitas to a well-known story that has generally been portrayed with levity onscreen. Jon Favreau's visionary direction of this adaptation walks a bold yet perfect line between a familiar children's adventure story and a coming-of-age tale of survival and responsibility. Mowgli swings from the trees and plays with the animals, but he must also face the reality that Shere Khan will ruthlessly kill him at the earliest opportunity. In this adaptation, there is more at stake than just Mowgli's life should he remain in the jungle-- Shere Khan's wrath also extends to Mowgli's wolf family, and any other animal that helps him.
The Jungle Book is fairly straightforward plot-wise, but reveals history creatively. In an earlier post some time ago, I gave a tongue-in-cheek piece on villains whose backstory should not be told; among them was Shere Khan. This telling of The Jungle Book undoes that hope, but accomplishes it so well that I hardly mind. And in all reality, in this sort of more serious adaptation, simply setting Shere Khan on a murderous rampage without a reason would have been poor storytelling. The original Shere Khan was regal, elegant, and aristocratic, giving the impression that his hatred of man was innate rather than personal. Elba's incarnation of Shere Khan is fierce, unforgiving, and utterly relentless. Understanding why Khan is this way contributes greatly to the overall tone of the movie, and enhances the maturity of it by several degrees. The realism of Khan's portrayal (and all the animals for that matter) is so precisely tailored right down to every strand of fur and ripple of muscle that the only real indications that this is CGI as opposed to a well-trained circus animal, are the almost human facial expressions (and of course that the animal is talking) and the accuracy of his body language (*see footnote for further explanation).
Disney has been on a role lately with its live-action adaptations and has a long list lined up to bring old classics to a new generation, with a new spin. If the live-action adaptation trend continues with the level of quality that The Jungle Book displayed, Disney stands a more than decent chance of being taken seriously again apart from its association with Pixar or its production of Frozen. The Jungle Book sets a high standard for future live-action adaptations to follow, being just nostalgic enough for the adults who will remember the original, but also new and fresh enough to not feel too repetitious. The end result is a familiar story told with greater passion and talent than ever before, casting a very great shadow for all future attempts at the story to escape.
*A predator stalking prey has an unmistakable posture and tension throughout its body. This body language is a marked difference from a trained behavior meant to imitate hunting movements and patterns. If you compared the 1994 live-action Jungle Book to a wildlife documentary for example, you would notice that the movie tiger runs head upright, with a bit of a trot, sort of bouncing onto its prey. Compare that to actual footage of a large cat hunting or stalking, the head is low when running, the body stays low prior to pouncing, and the pounce is erupting with strength. The fact that Shere Khan displays the latter realistic predatory behaviors in this most recent adaptation is proof that a child was certainly not on set with a real tiger.