Disney’s 1967 animated classic based on Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of short stories has, in Jon Favreau’s live-action, CGI-reliant update, been padded out with a half-hour of exposition and self-serious posturing. Favreau draws heavily on his film’s animated predecessor for plot, characterizations, songs, and set pieces, but doesn’t know how to fit these familiar elements into his own coherent vision. This is partly just a failure of conception: The white-knuckle chase film that Favreau seems more invested in making is always at odds with the musical sequences he struggles to make room for—just as surely as this cast of talking animals feels like an irreconcilable anachronism in the context of the film’s photorealistic animation. So much of the decision-making in this Disney redo suggests a film that’s less a conspicuous reimagining of its source than a hasty and diminished Xerox of it.
Disney’s canonized narrative is unchanged: When “man-cub” Mowgli (Neel Sethi) finds his blissful life in the jungle threatened by vengeful tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), surrogate guardians Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley) and “papa bear” Baloo (Bill Murray) vow to protect him, not only from Khan, but also the power-hungry ape King Louie (Christopher Walken) and a giant python named Kaa (Scarlett Johansson). When Favreau chooses to deviate from this economical framework, he’s sometimes able to restore a bit of the knottier storytelling from Kipling’s original text, as with the inclusion of the “water truce,” a pact of non-violence that helps bring the film’s predators and prey together in a sensible, if a little too convenient, way. More often, though, Favreau just capitulates to more generally accepted, recycled story material.
There’s something especially telling about the way this new Jungle Book liberally borrows not only from its own mythology, but also from The Lion King. Not only are the frequent cutaways to Mowgli’s old wolf pack—left kowtowing to Shere Khan’s controlling regime—reminiscent of the evil Scar’s dominion over the exiled Simba’s lion pride, but a sequence here in which Mowgli narrowly avoids Khan by making his way through a muddy stampede seems an explicit attempt to mine nostalgia from the Disney faithful.
The song breaks are a similarly cynical ploy. On paper, Murray and Walken singing “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You,” respectively, sounds intriguing. In execution, though, both sequences arrive like an unwanted Word from Our Sponsor interrupting Favreau’s feature presentation of Apocalyto: Mowgli’s Run. Murray and Walken’s dotting-old-man vocals might work with the seat-of-the-pants Dixieland with which Louis Prima and Phil Harris were supplied, but put up against John Debney’s blandly symphonic soundtrack cues, any weird nuances in their performances just come off as amateurisms.
What works about this Jungle Book—the tactfully embedded moral lessons, the humor, and a lushly animated child’s fantasy of the jungle—are uniformly an inheritance of its lineage. Meanwhile, the many things that don’t work about it—from recasting Baloo as an opportunistic manipulator to gender-swapping Kaa, only to frustratingly relegate the character to a single scene—show that the filmmakers never really progress this canonical story forward.
If anything, they regress it. Whereas some have designated the “be with your own kind” talk thrown around in Disney’s original Jungle Book as a coded message of segregation, in truth it was always more of a rejection of Mowgli’s sense of entitlement to the jungle. In any case, it was a vastly more interesting direction than the Messianic-jungle-savior one that Favreau’s Mowgli is thrust into in this film’s disappointingly standard-issue climax.