It has been years since I have seen the 1967 Disney animated classic The Jungle Book (and its forgetful 2003 sequel). I remember watching the VHS tape all the time as a kid, and would be amused by the characters and the catchy music numbers including the famous “Bear Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You”. A live-action remake might be tricky back in the day.
Now, in 2016, anything would be possible with Disney remaking pretty much every classic animated film into live-action. Last year’s Cinderella was a breath of fresh air (compared to the two disasters known as Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent); Kenneth Branagh brought the classic Disney tale back to pure life while adding more than enough changes to stand on its own. The Jungle Book brings the unique imagination of director Jon Favreau (Elf, Iron Man, Chef) and the sharp narrative by Justin Marks.
Based on the book by Rudyard Kipling, Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) is an orphan living in the heart of the jungle. Since he was an infant, he was raised by a family of wolves, led by Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). His guardian Bagheera, a black panther (Ben Kingsley, who is perfect for the role), teaches him the ways of the wolfpack. A gathering is disrupted by the snarling tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who threatens Mowgli about not being allowed in the jungle.
Along with Bagheera, he embarks on a long journey of self-discovery while encountering some other animals along his path including Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), Kaa the slithering snake (Scarlett Johansson), and King Louie the orangutan (Christopher Walken).
One of the biggest surprises in The Jungle Book is how Favreau makes the CGI look seamless—from the animals to the landscapes to the imaginative sets. Even though it’s undeniably darker than the original, this is a gorgeous film from start to finish. As someone who grew up with the original film, I couldn’t help but smile during Baloo’s “Bear Necessities” and King Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You”. With a great cast and whole wind of emotions, this surpasses the original on every level. Elba’s Shere Khan is the best villain so far this year.