Entertainment·MOVIE REVIEW

The Jungle Book remake is its own beast, says CBC's Eli Glasner

Disney continue to remake its cartoon classics and this weekend it's The Jungle Book, a live-action retelling inspired by the 1967 film. From the director of Iron Man and an army of computer animators, can the remake can stand on its own?

Though featuring just one actor surrounded by CGI critters, the remake retains some magic of the original

Rather than the zaniness of the 1967 cartoon, Jon Favreau reaches for moments of majesty in his CGI-dominated Jungle Book remake, says CBC's Eli Glasner 2:58

"Why are they making it, if the old one was so good?"

From the mouths of babes. The question was posed by my 10-year-old when I mentioned I was off to watch a new version of The Jungle Book.

Let's be clear. The 1967 film  — with Phil Harris as Baloo the Bear and Louie Prima as the scat-singing monkey King Louie — absolutely bristled with life. The rumbling malevolence of George Sanders as Shere Khan the tiger — I mean, how do you top that?

In Disney's 1967 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, the cartoon bear Baloo was unforgettably voiced by veteran singer and performer Phil Harris. (Disney)

Well, how about with Idris Elba? What if you get Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the snake and Ben Kingsley as the wise Bagheera? Now you see the temptation.

Imagine you're Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger, sitting on a Scrooge McDuck-sized goldmine of beloved cartoons. Blockbusters are expensive and risky (John Carter of Mars, anyone?). Hence the Mouse House plan to re-purpose its greatest hits. First Cinderella, now The Jungle Book — and coming soon, Pete's Dragon. A revamped version of The Aristocats is only a matter of time. Prepare yourself.

Sure, we can shake our fists at the studio execs who seem to be allergic to originality, but for the moment, let's silence the curmudgeon within and give thanks for Jon Favreau: a director who's demonstrated a knack for balancing action with character in past films such as Iron Man and Elf.

Young Neel Sethi, who portrays Mowgli, is the only actor who appears in flesh and blood onscreen. (Disney Enterprises)

The notion of blending technology with storytelling is critical because the new Jungle Book is a surprisingly artificial venture.

We begin in a familiar place. Mowgli the man cub, seen running with the wolves, is finding his place in the jungle pecking order. Yet for all the rich forest foliage, nearly everything we see is computer-generated. The only flesh and blood character onscreen is Neel Sethi, the young New York actor who plays Mowgli.

Considering Sethi spent the entire shoot in an Los Angeles studio acting in front of a blue screen, the 12-year old gives a very natural performance. His Mowgli isn't perfect and has moments any parent would recognize: he sulks and scowls, but still faces his fears.

All around him, the cast of computer-animated characters are entirely convincing thanks to impeccable voice casting. 

The major misstep of this Jungle Book are the musical sequences, which stick out as corporate initiatives rather than organic parts of the story.- Eli Glasner

Elba's Shere Khan oozes with menace. Giancarlo Esposito is stern, but effective as wolf pack leader Akela. Johansson spins a seductive story as Kaa the sinister snake.   

The Jungle Book's biggest stretch is the unmistakable diction of Christopher Walken, whose King Louie is an almost King Kong-sized orangutan inexplicably channeling Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. I kid you not.  

Amid the story's indelible characters, Phil Harris' original take on Baloo the bear is unforgettable. The remake's producers chose wisely by casting the idiosyncratic Bill Murray. His Baloo is equal parts slacker and schemer, encouraging Mowgli to make the most of jungle life.

Bill Murray's Baloo, the bear Mowgli encounters in the jungle, is equal parts slacker and schemer. (Disney Enterprises)

The major misstep of this Jungle Book are the musical sequences, which stick out as corporate initiatives rather than organic parts of the story.

Accepting a version of the Indian jungle filled with animals sharing a common code of conduct is hard enough. When Baloo breaks into a Dixieland-inspired rendition of The Bare Necessities, that suspension of disbelief snaps like a dry twig.

But once the distracting songs have faded away, The Jungle Book becomes its own beast.  

The notion of blending technology with storytelling is critical because the new Jungle Book is a surprisingly artificial venture: actor Neel Sethi is the only flesh and blood performer onscreen. (Disney Enterprises)

Rather than the zaniness of the original, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks reach for moments of majesty, for instance in a scene of an elephant herd plodding by wordlessly.  

Mowgli's humanity is also handled differently. Much of his story revolves around the dilemma of whether to embrace his tool-making, human abilities. Where the classic cartoon ended on a bittersweet note, the remake hedges its bets, for reasons that are becoming increasingly obvious

As for Favereau, how do you follow up The Jungle Book? He's already moved onto the next logic step: The Magic Kingdom, a family film about the Disney theme park coming to life.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 stars


About the Author

Eli Glasner

Entertainment reporter and film critic

Eli Glasner is a national entertainment reporter and film critic for CBC News. Each Friday he reviews films on CBC News Network as well as appearing on CBC radio programs coast to coast. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee, Ont. to the Oscars red carpet.


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