Disney Studios are really on a roll at the moment. Having bought out both Lucasfilm and Marvel Studios, therefore guaranteeing box office gold for the next few, well forever. They are now mining the back catalogue of their own revered animation history and attempting to do live action versions of the films.
In the trailers before the films, we caught a glimpse of Pete's Dragon, and this was in the same week that the world first got a glimpse of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens. With the forthcoming release of Finding Dory by Pixar Studios, the time is now to buy into Disney stock, if you can.
I am sometimes wary of live action versions of beloved animation classics, and they do not come more beloved than the last film Walt Disney himself was working on before his death in 1966.
The Jungle Book was released in 1967 to near universal acclaim, thanks in part to a combination of traditional Disney animation, a great adaptation of a fable - in this case Rudyard Kipling's tale of Mowgli the man cub in the sub-continental jungles; along with a memorable score by the Sherman Brothers who wrote two instant classics in The Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You.
How could Disney attempt to do a live action film of that involves the two things you should not film with, animals (a lot of them) and children? Yet in the hands of Jon Favreau (Swingers, Elf) , Disney have again succeeded in crafting a film full of fare for the whole family.
Watching the live action version, something struck me as to what makes a family film successful. It needs the right blend of fun, frivolity but also a healthy dose of fear. You need those moments of peril for the young viewer to observe; in the feature length cartoon it was the sheer presence of Shere Khan (here voiced by Idris Elba) and his battle at the end with fire along with the ominous dread of vultures circling.
In this version, the elements of fear are amped up to the nth degree with Khan being evil in a tiger skin and pouncing from out of nowhere. Favreau cleverly does not show any characters straight away, instead giving you a sense of nervous trepidation about what Mowgli could be running from or about to encounter.
The only one we see at face value is Mowgli (winningly played by Neel Sethi); Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) catches Mowgli at the film's beginning, Baloo (Bill Murray) comes out of a bush and King Louie (Christopher Walken) is shrouded in darkness from us all in his temple.
Even the elephants, those of the famous Dawn patrol from 1967, are given silent roles in this film; but this does not diminish their importance, as all bow towards them as the kings of the jungle. Nevertheless, they pop up out of nowhere in the forest, and their appearance bring with it a twist on the interaction they have with Mowgli, who does the most humane thing.
This film is keen to tell young viewers that forest conservation is important, this is helped by having the most cuddly character, Baloo, say the most important line about the red flower (fire) in the film, 'The red flower is dangerous. Do not play with it'.
The film allows a brilliant in-joke for cinephile adults with the introduction of Louie, making him out to be a Marlon Brando/Colonel Kurtz doppelganger from Apocalypse Now, which actually made me laugh because I got the witty insert
Favreau - who has directed two Iron Man movies - again shows his ability in pacing and maintaining tempo throughout the film, even in moments where the brakes go on such as Mowgli getting Baloo his honey or Kaa ensnaring Mowgli; there is a real sense of vigour and adventure on display. Special and visual effect supervisors will get due credit but equal plaudits should go to Favreau and his editor, Mark Livolsi who maintain this pace and can even inject songs into the narrative without it becoming hokey or sentimental.
The film does not suffer third act problems as recent big blockbusters do, perhaps because it is true to the first adaptation and it even has a different ending which is surprising but nevertheless provides Mowgli with a justifiable character arc and desired purpose.
The voice cast is across the board brilliant, Bill Murray of course gets the best lines;
- You hibernate?
- No, but I sleep a lot.
yet all are good, the most pleasant surprise being Walken as Louie who delivers a real menace to a big character and shows he can even carry a tune.
This is one of the better family films I have seen in recent years and in a sold out cinema screen on a Bank Holiday Monday it maintained the attention of the young and old in attendance, hush in anticipation and gripped by enjoyment, that is all you can ask for, in spite of a power surge when we had an unplanned five minute intermission.
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