When beloved old classics are re-made, or re-imagined, it’s natural to wonder why they bothered. In some cases, such as the recent Dad’s Army, that was the nagging question not only all the way to the cinema but also all the way home.
It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I sat down to watch The Jungle Book. The 1967 Disney film, despite all the genius that Pixar and others have unleashed on us since, remains my all-time favourite animation. Phil Harris’s Baloo and the Sherman brothers’ songs are as much a joy now as they ever were.
So for Disney to have another crack is a bit like Michelangelo daubing paint on a second chapel ceiling. It might be a great job, but won’t it detract from the original?
Happily, it doesn’t at all. The combination of live action and computer-generated imagery works an absolute treat, and director Jon Favreau (whose eclectic CV includes Iron Man and Chef, in which he also starred) teases a nigh-on perfect performance from young Neel Sethi.
The ten-year-old New Yorker makes an even better Mowgli than the pen-and-ink version.
Wisely, Favreau has not tried simply to add CGI bells and whistles to the original animation.
There are only two songs, albeit the best two (The Bare Necessities, and I Wanna Be Like You), and overall this is a darker take on Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories, to which really young children should be exposed with caution.
Even I was scared by the vengeful tiger, Idris Elba’s brilliantly voiced Shere Khan.
He exudes sheer menace, although you can’t help feeling Shere Khan has a point about the cute man-cub growing up to pose an existential threat to the jungle way of life.
But the environmental message isn’t hammered too hard, and the familiar story unfolds more or less as we know it. Mowgli has been raised by friendly wolves, but when Shere Khan reveals his murderous intent, Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley) undertakes to lead the boy back to the man-village.
On the way, Mowgli is befriended by laid-back Baloo the bear (Bill Murray, obviously), who has saved him from the deadly coils of Kaa the snake (Scarlett Johansson).
Then comes the ape kidnap, so brilliantly drawn in the original film and beautifully realised here, too, as Mowgli is carted off to share the secret of ‘man’s red flower’ with King Louie, not an orang-utan this time but a vast Gigantopithecus (long extinct, but once the world’s largest primate).
He is voiced — pricelessly, as a mafia godfather — by Christopher Walken.
The screenplay (by Justin Marks) is a delight, with enough Disney cutesiness but never too muc
And there are jokes aplenty for grown-ups, as when Baloo turns to a pesky armadillo and mutters: ‘You have never been a more endangered species than you are at the moment.’
Some scenes, such as the King Louie abduction, and an earlier buffalo stampede, are breathtakingly executed.
But in a way what the film does best are the (comparatively) simple things, starting with the basic anthropomorphising of animals.
Walt Disney didn’t live quite long enough to see the original, but it would have enchanted him. This, however, would have amazed him.
So, does it eclipse the 1967 film in my affections? It doesn’t, and couldn’t. After all, there’s no Colonel Hathi, pompous commander of the elephants; no lugubrious, Beatles-inspired vultures; no Phil Harris. But it will make a wonderful family outing, all the same.