“The Jungle Book” becomes Disney’s newest live-action depiction of a classic children’s tale, drawing inspiration from Rudyard Kipling’s work and subsequent animated feature adaptation in 1967. It’s a film franchise that’s had a live-action remake before, but in contrast to that one, this Jon Favreau iteration focuses heavily on the animalistic jungle society, highlighting the flora and fauna more predominantly. Visually it’s an exciting treat and full of realistic life despite the lack of actual real life. It also makes strides in incorporating emotion into the journey, but unfortunately falls slightly short in fully drawing it out. Still, the plot is developed in a way that deepens the thematic story, more so than any other depiction of this tale, and for that it’s a win.
The film follows young Mowgli (Neel Sethi), raised by wolves in the jungle, on his quest to return to civilization due to being hunted by a human-hating tiger, Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba). On his quest he’s cared for by a black panther named Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) who saved him as a stranded infant, and Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray), a wise-cracking, fun-loving, not-so-serious bear. Though he has his guardians, Mowgli still manages to traverse the jungle on his own at times and comes into contact with the not-so-nice forces of nature which include Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), a hungry monstrous python, and King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken), a gigantic ape hoping to harness Mowgli’s power as human to obtain the feared Red Flower—or fire. Mowgli’s time with King Louie emphasizes one of the main points and conflicts of the film: man vs. nature.
Thematically there are several themes touched upon in “The Jungle Book,” and all are far more fleshed out and developed than any other depiction of this tale. The focus on nature highlights its camaraderie, most notably within the wolf pack that raised Mowgli. His wolf mother Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) represents the power of love and family, being the nurturer and overall maternal figure of the wolf pack. Meanwhile, his wolf father Akela (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito), acts as pack leader and the glue that holds this animal society together. Even outside of the wolf pack there’s camaraderie amongst the rest of the fauna that portrays them as a sort of society, symbolizing the benefit of jungle biodiversity. Whereas “The Jungle Book” in its original animated depiction seems pieced together in separate, stand-alone instances (much like the source of Kipling’s collected stories), this current live-action foray into the story displays it as a cohesive start-to-finish tale where everything interacts and is a part of the same world.
Mowgli remains at the heart of this world as he represents the main theme of why this story is so successful. He’s a young, not-yet-of-age, human—or man-cub—who views the jungle world in awe (represented well by Neel Sethi) and has a desire to remain in it despite being hunted by Shere Khan. Mowgli’s resourceful and innovative, representing the power and threat of man, while Shere Khan is nature itself, doing what it can to snuff out the one true threat to its existence. It’s a battle that has two sides, and neither can really be seen as truly good or truly evil, which intensifies what’s at stake in the end. Even King Louie understands this dilemma as he recognizes what makes man so threatening, hoping to even the playing field—to the point of tipping the scales of balance—with Mowgli’s help. It’s the age old conflict that will never be resolved, as both man and nature fiercely fight to remain the apex force in the world.
Overall, “The Jungle Book” definitely takes its time in developing its story deeper which is a huge plus for this iteration. In several instances it could have been more emotionally dramatic, but what it fell short in emotion it more than made up in nature’s wonderment. It would have been nice to not have been so heavily computer animated, but the detriment of that is lost due to the exceptional voice acting (Christopher Walken and Scarlett Johansson are delightful pleasures). Also of note are the natural movements and interactions of the animals in this vibrant and lively world. The film does a great job of highlighting the struggle of nature against man, and wraps it up nicely in the end. “The Jungle Book” is a thoughtful, visual live-action masterwork that makes nature its rightful star.
Final grade? A-