Title: The Jungle Book
Release Date: April 15, 2016
Director: Jon Favreau
Release Format: Theatrical
Growing up as a child of the 90’s, I was raised on many of Disney’s animated films. I loved “Beauty & The Beast”, “Aladdin”, “The Great Mouse Detective” and hell, the first film I ever watched in a movie theater was “The Little Mermaid.” I was two years old, but I was there. However, one Disney animated film that always stuck out to me was “The Jungle Book.” It was the last film Walt Disney worked on before his death and was meant to teach kids good moral values such as, appreciate the world around you (the bare necessities of life), you can always count on your friends, be careful who you trust, there’s always time to laugh, what’s right isn’t always easy, etc. The characters were funny (Phil Harris as Baloo is legendary), the villain was cunning and full of himself and the animation, even today, still holds up. In my opinion, it represents one of Disney’s best in terms of its animation and humor and remains a personal favorite of mine. That’s why I am so pleased to report that “The Jungle Book (2016)” represents one of Disney’s best as well, recapturing everything that made the 1967 film, as well as the book, so great to begin with.
The story of “The Jungle Book” follows a young man-cub named Mowgli (played by Neel Sethi), who is raised in the jungle by wolves and trained by the Black Panther, Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley). When the most feared predator of the jungle, Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba), discovers Mowgli’s presence, the vicious tiger vows to kill the man cub by any means. It’s noteworthy that Jon Favreau hasn’t made a film this great since “Iron Man” in 2008 and it’s wonderful to see him back on his A-Game. It’s even more noteworthy that this is not the first time Disney has remade “The Jungle Book.” In the words of The Almighty Baloo, “There’s more, lot’s more!” There’s the 1967 animated film, of course, but then there was “Talespin”, “The Jungle Book (1994)”, the “Jungle Cubs” cartoon series, “The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story” and, finally, “The Jungle Book 2”, which was a direct sequel to the 1967 animated feature. So, technically, this is Disney’s seventh go around at The Jungle Book. That is unbelievable.
While also recapturing the magic of Disney’s original masterpiece, Director Jon Favreau has somehow found a way to breath new life into this story. He did this by staying remarkably faithful to Disney’s 1967 classic while also incorporating many elements of Rudyard Kipling’s book that were not present in the original. Ikki the porcupine (voiced by the late Gary Shandling. R.I.P.), The Red Flower, Shere Khan’s burnt face, The Cattle Stampede (an obvious homage to Shere Khan’s fate in the book) and The Peace Rock are all from the original source and the film is all the better for including them. It also incorporates certain things from the 1967 film that I wasn’t expecting it to. For example, the main theme, from John Debney’s brilliant musical score, is an instrumental remake of “The Bare Necessities,” inarguably the most popular song from the original film. Coincidently, Mowgli and Baloo also sing the song within the film. Hell, even “I wanna be like you”, the song sung by King Louie and his legion of apes, makes it in here. Yeah, can you imagine Christopher Walken singing? This movie made that a reality and it’s about as hilarious and awesome as it sounds.
How is the CGI? Well, this movie was shot using mostly green screen and yet, there was never a moment where I didn’t believe they were in the jungle. Every detail is so precise and the film just looks beautiful. It’s not just the jungle either. When I first heard about this film, I thought that the use of motion capture for the animals would be distracting and fake looking. However, I am pleased to say that this was not the case. This isn’t Twilight where the wolves look like unfinished cartoons. This is The Jungle Book where every single animal looks like a real living creature. This movie sets a new standard for its use of Special Effects. I don’t care if “Star Wars: Rogue One” is being released in December, if “The Jungle Book” doesn’t win the Oscar for Special Effects next year, I’m going to be very pissed off. With our luck, “Mad Max: Fury Road” will probably win again… wait…
As for the actors, I can’t think of one bad performance. Neel Sethi is perfectly casted as Mowgli. His interactions with the animals, as well as the jungle itself, are the very heart of the film. We see the jungle and its inhabitants through the eyes of a child who manages to survive in it; a human child who learns to live as an animal himself. Neel Sethi displays the emotions of this character beautifully. My favorite scenes were the ones with him and his mother wolf, Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyongo). They share a scene early on in the movie that was so heartfelt, I felt myself getting teary eyed. When these two are together in the film, there is no doubt that this is a mother and her son. The same can be said for his interactions with Bagheera, as the film makes it clear that while Bagheera is a mentor to Mowgli, there is nothing Bagheera will not do to protect him. This was something explored much more in the book than it has ever been on film but, regardless, this is still a damn good interpretation. Ben Kingsley portrays Bagheera as the honest, caring mentor that he is supposed to be, trying to keep Mowgli’s attention while also trying to do what’s best for the young boy, even if Mowgli objects.
The film becomes more upbeat when we finally get to Baloo, who get’s the perfect “louse character with the heart of gold” treatment that he deserves, thanks to a wonderful performance by Bill Murray. Murray nails this character. From his fun-loving, yet lazy lifestyle to his sarcastic attitude, Bill Murray represents everything that Baloo is supposed to be. Much like the original, he strives to keep Mowgli with him but soon realizes that the jungle might not be the best thing for Mowgli, enforcing the moral that “what’s right isn’t always what’s easy.” This great performance is really no surprise given Murray’s past roles. Whether it be a womanizing scientist in “Ghostbusters”, an evil CEO being visited by three spirits in “Scrooged” or, quite literally, himself in “Zombieland”, Bill Murray has a wonderful comedic charm that always shines through when the right material or the right character is handed to him. With The Jungle Book, this fantastic talent is back, doing what he does best in spectacular fashion. There’s no scene with Baloo dancing with Louie in this version but as long as Bill Murray is playing this character, I don’t give a crap.
Another highlight of this film is the sequence with King Louie, which plays out at a nice pace and in very much the same manner as the original, but with one slight change; Louie, for whatever reason, is the size of Kong in this movie. I have no idea why he’s the size of Kong in this movie but, hey, they got Christopher Walken to play him so I can let it slide. King Louie, in most adaptations of this story, is played for laughs. However, Christopher Walken plays him more like a menacing mobster type character, with the Brooklyn accent and the fearsome eyes to match. He’s still funny but has a more threatening presence to him. This is an odd change that, strangely, sort of works in the movie’s favor. It’s an interesting and surprisingly welcome new take on the character that we’ve never seen before.
So, with all that said, do I have any problems with this movie? Honestly, I have only one and it’s more of a nitpick than an actual problem with the movie. Remember how much they built up Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) in the first trailer? Remember that big, creepy monolog she had? Surely, she’ll have a big part in the movie, right? Wrong! That is her only scene in the entire movie and it was a bit of a bummer. However, the more I think about it, maybe that one scene was all they needed for this character. Despite not having much screen time, Scarlett Johansson still gives a menacing performance and the sequence is beautifully handled on its own. Additionally, the sequence still represents Kaa’s purpose from the original film perfectly, showing the main character that he should be careful who he trusts. So, in the end, I guess I can’t really complain. She’s still in it enough to leave an impression on the audience and, in all fairness, she got more screen-time than Captain Phasma got in “The Force Awakens”, so I guess I can take that and call it a win. I’m hoping that the announced sequel to this movie will feature more of this character; Fingers Crossed.
Besides, we still have Idris Elba’s performance as Shere Khan picking up the slack quite nicely. Whereas the original film played off Shere Khan as an egomaniacal mastermind, this version of the character is more of a ruthless soul seeking revenge for what Mowgli’s human father did to his face. They also play up the animosity between Shere Khan and Mowgli much better in this film than in the animated one, with the two staring each other down, as enemies of this caliber would. It all culminates in a climax that left me breathless. I honestly felt like I needed a nap after that ending. Speaking of which, if you were expecting this film to end the exact same way the original did, you’ll be sorely disappointed. I wasn’t, personally, because the ending in this movie makes more sense (especially if you’ve read the book), whereas the original comes out of nowhere.
Overall, The Jungle Book represents one of Disney’s absolute best. It’s beautifully shot, expertly paced, superbly acted and has enough from both the original film and the source novel to truly stand on its own. I can’t think of one thing this movie did badly. Sure, Kaa could have, and should have, had more screen-time but as long as the character was done well and the rest of the movie works beautifully with her only being present in one scene, I really have no complaints. This movie manages to do something that none of the of the other recent Disney remakes have been able to accomplish; This movie made me feel like a little kid again, sitting in front of the living room TV, watching the original animated movie. “The Jungle Book” is a perfect film experience. As far as I’m concerned, It’s The Jungle V.I.P. and if this is Disney’s apology for making me sit through crap like “Maleficent” then all I can say is, Apology Accepted!
- Acting: Every cast member is on their A-Game, delivering performances that are funny, menacing and, at times, heartfelt. Newcomer, Neel Sethi is a rising star.
- Cinematography: Every frame of this movie is breathtaking. I have not seen cinematography this fantastic since Mad Max: Fury Road. As far as the CGI and Motion Capture Work is concerned, this film is a game changer.
- Story: A brilliant blend of Disney’s original animated feature and the classic novel by Rudyard Kipling, the story is captivating and expertly written by Justin Marks (hard to believe he also wrote Street Fighter: Legend Of Chun Li… I know, right?).
- Characters: Every character is perfectly realized. Bill Murray’s Baloo and Ben Kingsley’s Bagheera are among the best the film has to offer.