“The Jungle Book” gives old story stunning new backdrop

WANNA WALK LIKE YOU TOO Mowgli and Bagheera forge new paths in Disney’s live-action adaptation of “The Jungle Book,” released Friday. Photo credit: MCT Tribune News Service

“The Jungle Book,” originally a collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling, debuted Friday as a new and improved live-action film starring Neel Sethi as the fearlessly curious Mowgli. The remake of the 1967 animated film gave a refreshing new take on the classic story while keeping many of the elements that endeared the original to viewers.

The story follows a young “man cub” named Mowgli who was raised in the jungle by wolves. When Shere Khan, a tiger with a vendetta against humans, comes back to the jungle and finds Mowgli under the protection of the pack, he swears to come back to kill him and anyone who stands in his way. Rather than put his wolf family in harm’s way, Mowgli elects to leave with Bagheera, his panther friend, voiced by Ben Kingsley. Bagheera accompanies Mowgli to the “man village” because the jungle has become too dangerous for him. On the way, they meet many interesting characters, most notably Baloo the bear, voiced by Bill Murray.

The bonds of friendship among the unlikely characters tighten as Mowgli finds himself in increasingly dangerous situations. Mowgli faces deadly snakes, stampeding buffalo and a King Kong-sized orangutan with a fierce desire for the secrets of fire. All those dangers and, of course, the ferocious battle against Shere Khan himself, made the movie a true pleasure to watch. There was not a single dull moment, but comic relief and boyish intrepidity kept viewers from being exhausted by the movie’s thrills.

One of the most notable and most necessary changes to the original film adaptation was the removal of racial stereotypes. The original film drew a horrible parallel between the monkey kingdom reigned over by King Louie and people of African descent. This rendering makes no such parallel. Although the song “I Wanna Be Like You” remained in the movie, the orangutan king, voiced by Christopher Walken, had more in common with a mob boss from a movie like “The Godfather” than anything else.

The movie also set a new standard for CGI depictions of the natural world. Animals looked and behaved like animals, down to the twitching of Shere Khan’s whiskers and the night-vision flash of Bagheera’s eyes. This film pulled out all the stops. Although I did find the frequent use of CGI for all the backgrounds and characters a little hard to get into at the beginning of the movie, it was so realistic that I soon became completely immersed in the adventure in a way that few CGI-heavy films are able to achieve.

The movie was compelling and adventurous and has already wowed audiences, receiving a 94 percent on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer. There was a beautiful balance between friendship and the harsh reality of life in the jungle. It was also refreshing to find a reasonable balance between environmentalism and utter destruction of the natural world. While much of the movie is driven by the idea that man has no place in the jungle and Mowgli must learn to behave like a wolf in order to stay, it ends with the acceptance of Mowgli as he is. To deny his humanity would be to deny what gives him strength, even in the jungle. It was a beautiful retelling of the classic story, and I’m sure many will fall in love with it as they did with the first.