tl;dr – Not only does this live-action remake far transcend the original, it’s also Disney’s best live-action remake of one of its animated films to date. Even if you didn’t like or have never seen the original cartoon, you can (and probably will) enjoy this movie. If you are a fan of the original, prepare to have your socks blown off, as this is arguably one of the greatest remakes ever made.
I should probably start by saying that while I grew up watching the original cartoon, it was never among my favorite Disney movies. It’s certainly enjoyable, but I wouldn’t consider it one of “The Greats.” However, in my opinion, this live-action version is Disney’s best “remake an animated movie into live-action” movie thus far.
Perhaps the most important discussion point: this movie is a technological marvel. If you didn’t know: this was filmed entirely in downtown LA on a studio set. With the exception of Mowgli, almost everything you see on the screen is CG. AND IT ALWAYS LOOKS COMPLETELY REAL. Unlike 2009’s Avatar (which I absolutely love, y’all haters can go ahead and start hating) which took us to an alien world that almost always looked “real” with completely fictional flora and fauna, this film transports up to the jungles of India, with realistic animals (albeit talking ones), and it ALL. LOOKS. AMAZING. This is one of the most visually stunning movies that I have ever seen. Last year the director said that this is the most technologically advanced film ever made, and after seeing it, I believe him. If you want to get the full experience of this movie, I *HIGHLY* recommend seeing it in 3D. Another brief comment about the visuals: I don’t know how they did it, but they actually somehow managed to make King Louie look like Christopher Walken and Baloo look like Bill Murray. I mean, they still looked like a real Orangutan and Bear and not some freakish hybrid, but I could see facial expressions from both of the two actors that I’ve seen them express in other movies when they are human. I feel this added an extra layer to their performance, and made the characters more expressive.
Speaking of actors, Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, deserves some kind of award. Not only did he make Mowgli an enjoyable and relatable character, he did it without virtually ANY of the visuals that you’ll see in the movie. Sure, he had some props and knew where to look and where to move, but none of the animals he interacts with are real. All of them were either puppets that got completely replaced with CGI, or were never there in any form to begin with. Unlike the original cartoon, where I felt like Mowgli was just the character that had things happen to him, Sethi’s portrayal of Mowgli is the irreplaceable center of this film and the instigator of most of the story, as opposed to the person that the story happens to. I especially liked how he was portrayed as a skilled problem solver, which emphasized one of his unique human characteristics.
Unlike Zootopia, which I felt repeatedly bashed the audience over the head with its (admittedly timely and relevant) message that accepting others for their differences is important, I felt that the message of this film was much more subtle, but just as present, which resulted in a significantly less preachy film. This movie recognizes that diversity is important and teaches that rather than trying to be something that you are not, you should just be you. This is shown especially when Mowgli realizes that he needs to stop trying to be a wolf, and accept that he is a man, and should embrace that part of himself (and quite literally is able to save the day when he does so). This movie is very much a coming-of-age tale, as Mowgli comes to learn exactly what it means to be human. However, the film also shows that though everyone may be different (in this case, numerous diverse species), it is only by overcoming our differences and working together that we can overcome the obstacles that threaten us. While this could have easily been expressed in a cheesy or preachy way, I felt that it was a completely natural part of the story, and at no time did I feel like the movie was delivering a sermon (which is something that Zootopia seemed to do multiple times).
The following section may contain some minor spoilers, but I’m just discussing two scenes from the cartoon that made it into this remake. If you don’t want to know anything about what was or wasn’t included from the cartoon, then you can skip to the next paragraph, but if you don’t care about knowing that some of the scenes from the cartoon are in this film, then read on: I feel I need to talk about the two musical numbers in this film. “Bare Necessities” felt like a completely natural part of the movie. It didn’t feel forced because it felt less like a scene from a musical, and more like two buddies just singing for fun (it felt kind of like the Misty Mountains song from the first Hobbit). I totally believed that those two characters would have sung that song at that time. Now, as much as I really really wanted to hear Christopher Walken sing “I Wanna Be Like You” when I went into this film, when the song finally happened, I felt like it didn’t really fit into the narrative. In isolation, I enjoyed the song, but within the context of this movie, it really felt shoehorned in. When someone who has zero familiarity with the animated film sees this scene, they’re probably going to be wondering why the heck King Louie is singing, and they’re right to wonder.
All-in-all, I feel like this is one of Disney’s best movies from recent years. I’d say it’s on the level with Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph (both of which I love), and it’s significantly better than some of Disney’s previous hits like Zootopia, Frozen, and Maleficent. If you are a fan of the family movie genre, then this movie is definitely worth watching. And if you are a fan of visually compelling cinematic experiences, I would say that you have to see this film and see it in 3D. I definitely plan on seeing this movie again, and I will probably buy it on Blu-ray when it comes out.