Over the past few years, Disney has been systematically remaking their classic animated movies in live-action. With a number of other live-action adaptations in the works, it seems it’s only a matter of time before we see a remake for all the classic Disney films, and I am here for it. I find these remakes a great new way to engage with nostalgia. It feels like I’m watching a movie I’ve seen countless times before, but for the first time again.
That being said, only one of these remakes really stands out to me as an improvement on the original. Most of these movies make their way to live-action relatively unaltered story-wise, the most common criticism of the remakes. But that’s not the case for The Jungle Book, which is (in my opinion) superior to the original movie.
The Jungle Book follows the story of Mowgli, a human child (or “man-cub”) who is orphaned in the jungles of India, raised by wolves and mentored by a panther named Bagheera. The animals work together to raise him until the jungle’s apex predator, the tiger Shere Khan, discovers Mowgli and threatens to kill him out of fear and hatred for mankind. That’s the general plot of both the animated original and the live-action remake, and that is also pretty much where the similarities stop.
The question is, what elements of its animated predecessor did the live-action Jungle Book improve upon that elevated it further than other live-action remakes have since?
Centering It On Fire Makes For A Stronger Story
In both movies, King Louie, the leader of the monkeys, sings a song called “I Wan’na Be Like You” about how he’s peaked as a primate and now aspires to be human. In this song (sung by Christopher Walken in the remake), he explains that he believes this can be achieved by Mowgli teaching him how to make fire (a thing Mowgli does not know how to do). This is the only time fire is mentioned in the original movie.
In the remake, however, it’s used as a central plot device and everything in the story is tied back to what the animals call the “red flower.” It serves as the origin of Shere Khan’s hatred and symbolizes the destructive power of humanity – a power that, if Mowgli embraces it, could destroy the jungle he loves.
In the animated original, Mowgli largely has no real defense against Shere Khan beyond his animal friends protecting him, but fire opens up other options in the remake. He could learn to use it (metaphorically coming of age and taking on the role of humanity) but by doing so, he would prove Shere Khan’s fears about Mowgli’s destructive potential to be correct. This added element really strengthens the characters’ motives, centers the main conflict, and in doing so, elevates the narrative.
Mowgli Is A More Well-Rounded Character
Both versions of The Jungle Book have chapter-like segments where Mowgli interacts with different animals as he seeks a new home in the jungle where he’ll be safe. In the remake, Mowgli consistently discovers that, while he can’t survive using the same skills the animals do, he has other assets that he brings to the table: he can make tools. Ultimately, this allows Mowgli to grow into his own person and find a place in the jungle that isn’t tethered to others. It makes for stronger character development and a more well-rounded character than just a cute kid acting as a foil for singing animals.
The Size & Scale Of The Animals Adds A New Element Of Danger
It may sound naive to say, because I do understand they’re fake, but I was very impressed by how big the animals were in proportion to Mowgli. There’s a chilling scene, for example, where Mowgli steps on something while walking through the jungle and picks it up to discover it’s a skin shed from a preternaturally large snake.
King Louie isn’t an orangutan in the remake, he’s a Gigantopithecus, an extinct genus of primate thought to be the origin of the myth of the Yeti. The size helps reinforce the sensation that this jungle is a completely different, alien world, where animals we thought had long been extinct were actually just hiding. This added grandeur really builds on the world of the original, but the animals aren’t so big that they feel mythical. Instead, it just serves to underscore just how out of place Mowgli is and the very real dangers that lurk in the jungle for a small human boy.
I’ve really enjoyed reliving my childhood watching the Disney remakes and I’m excited to see more as they continue to come out. So far, Disney has done a great job capturing the spirit of the originals. That being said, I’d like to see more adaptations where the story is completely reimagined in the way The Jungle Book was. If you’d like to judge for yourself how the remake improved upon the original, Disney will be re-releasing the live-action remake in select theaters July 3.