Growing up in Fresno, one of the very first things I was every introduced to was the magic of Disney. I was shown many of those original, classic animated films growing up at an impressionable young age and even if I may not have seen a lot of them in a long time, my memories of them are strong and are likely to never leave me. It also helped that I was a child of the late 80s and the early 90s, so I was right there during the heyday of the Disney Renaissance. So many great films I saw under the Disney banner, but I will admit that, with my age and gender and just my own personal interests, there were some Disney films that I enjoyed a little better than others. And one of my personal favorites was The Jungle Book.
Based on the classic story by Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book, released in 1976 and directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, was the 19th animated feature in the Walt Disney Animated Classics series and the final film produced by Walt Disney himself before he died in 1966. The film was an animated musical, true to Disney tradition, and adapted the story of Mowgli, a human boy, or “man-cub”, orphaned as a baby and raised in the jungle by animals. He is found by a black panther and raised by a pack of wolves, until a ruthless Bengal tiger that hates man vows to kill Mowgil if he should ever find him. Because to this, Mowgli is told to leave the jungle for his own safety and go to the nearby man village where he will be safe. But Mowgli is reluctant to leave the jungle he calls his home and ends up making new friends, particularly a laid-back bear named Baloo, as well as enemies, include the orangutan King Louie and the snake Kaa, before finally coming into conflict with Shere Khan himself.
The film was always a favorite out of all the Disney catalog for me, helped by some classic musical number like Louis Prima’s “I Wanna Be Like You” and Phil Harris’s classic recording of “The Bare Necessities.” I also have fond memories the cartoon Talespin, where they adapted the characters from the movie into an ongoing story about anthropomorphic animals involved in a art deco-inspired adventure about aviation and comedy. My point is that this is one Disney classic that has always stuck with me…And now Disney has decided to come back to it with a live action remake.
The new version of The Jungle Book is the latest example of an ongoing tradition of Disney doing live action remakes of their classic animated films. I am going to admit right here that their previous outings with this concept, such as Maleficent and Cinderella, really didn’t do anything to catch my interest (even though my very first theatrical release review was of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland), but this one was different. The trailers advertised a greater adventure element than in some of the other films and the CGI was looking great, not to mention the impressive voice cast they assembled and the promise of a talented director like Jon Favreau. To be fair, this not eh first time Kipling’s story has been adapted since or even before the 1967 classic this story has been adapted over and over again since its publication. In fact, Disney already made one previous live action version of The Jungle Book themselves back in 1994 starring Jason Scott Lee, but that one owed more to Tarzan than to Kipling or even to the animated film. But is this new version of the story any better?
The film tells the story of Mowgli (played by Neel Sethi), an orphaned man-cub found in the jungle by the black panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) who then brought him to a pack of Indian wolves. Mowgli grew up raised by the wolf Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) and her pack led by Akela (voiced Giancarlo Esposito). Bagheera trains Mowgli to learn the ways of the wolves but Mowgli faces certain challenges and lags behind his wolf siblings, and Bagheera consistently berates him for using human tricks like tool building, instead of learning the ways of the pack. One day, during the dry season, all the animals in the jungle gather at the Peace Rock to drink the water that remains as part of the Water Truce, a timeout called during a drought that enables all animals to gather at a water hole without fear of being eaten by larger, more predatory animals. But the truce is disrupted when the fearsome Bengal tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) detects Mowgli’s scent amongst the crowd, and threatens his life both out of a personal grudge and because man is not welcome in the jungle. The tiger issues a warning that when the Water Truce ends and the Peace Rock disappears, he will kill Mowgli.
A debate and argument among the wolf pack occurs to decide whether they should keep Mowgli or not. But before a decision is made, Mowgli voluntarily decides to leave the jungle for the sake and safety of his pack, with the agreement of Bagheera, who volunteers to guide the man-cub to the human village nearby. But Shere Khan ambushes them while e-route, and Bagheera is forced to hold off the vengeful tiger while Mowgli manages to escape with the help of a herd of water buffaloes. Mowgli, now alone, stumbles upon a thick canopy where he meets Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), an enormous Indian python who lures him in with promises of safety and an assurance that she knows who and what Mowgli truly is. Having hypnotized him, Kaa attempts to devour Mowgli, but he is rescued by a sloth bear named Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray). In exchange for saving Mowgli’s life, Baloo tells Mowgli to fetch him honey which is atop a cliff, to which Mowgli reluctantly agrees. Despite the danger of this act, the two of them form a close bond as Baloo request’s him that they should work as a team as Baloo’s power and Mowgli’s tricks to get things easily will help them both so Mowgli decides to stay with Baloo until the winter season arrives.
Meanwhile, Shere Khan returns to the wolf pack to ask where Mowgli is. Finding out that the man-cub has left the jungle, he throws Akela off a nearby cliff, killing him. Confident that Mowgli will return, Shere Khan takes over the pack so as to lure Mowgli to his death. At the same time, Bagheera has caught up with Mowgli and Baloo and tries to lure the boy away form the bear so he may go to the one place he can be truly safe, a nearby man village. But then Mowgli is suddenly kidnapped by monkeys who present him to King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken), a Bornean orangutan-resembling a Gigantopithecus who tries to coerce Mowgli into giving up the secret to the power of fire, or the “red flower” as the creatures of the jungle call it. Can Baloo and Bagheera rescue the man–cub from the monkey king’s trap? And more important, can Mowgli escape the jungle before Shere Khan finds him? Or will the boy be forced to grow up and become a man?
I asked if this new version fares any better than the 1994 version, and the answer is an enthusiastic and unmitigated yes! Not only that, but while it may never replace the animated film it is adapting (yes, we are reviewing an adaptation of an adaptation here), it does nothing to disgrace or demean it whatsoever. In fact, it might even make that older film stronger in hindsight.
A big reason why this film works has to do with its young star. The Jungle Book is a meant as a coming of age story for this young boy so if Mowgli himself doesn’t work, then neither does the movie. Now lets own up to something here: Neel Sethi was only ten years old when this film was filmed and his only film credit before this was a short film called Diwali from 2013. This is his big, feature film debut that, which is already a huge source of pressure, but then take into account that this kid had to hold his own as the only human character in the story and that he had to act on a green screen set with nothing there for at lest the majority of the production, and you could have had a recipe for disaster. But instead, Sethi proudly carries the film on his shoulders with a sense of comfort and warmth that make us like him instantly and his acting sells the fluctuating range of emotions that he displays across this story. He shows no discomfort or awkwardness when he’s on stage and doesn’t seem to let the reality that he is surrounded by green screen and acting with nothing while having to walk around in nothing but red underwear affect his performance. There may be a couple of rare moments here and there where he might not work, but I can easily forgive them if they are there because this is his first movie and he is so young and because he is taking on such a massive task like this. I can say for myself that I cannot wait to see what other kids of roles this kid lands in the wake of this and how much he will grow as an actor.
Then again, as IGN pointed out, as essential as it was that they got Mowgli right, it was just an essential that they sold us on fully CGI animals with fleshed out personalities that can interact with him. I will say right here that the computer graphics used to created these animals are amazing! Watching them on screen, yes there is some obvious exaggeration her and there for the sake of getting a sense of the actors into the characters and because, lets face it, animal’s mouth weren’t designed to vocally speak in the real word, but you suspend your disbelieve immediately because the models are so convincing. Bagheera looks and movies just like a real panther, Baloo look and moves like a real bear, etc.
The computer generated jungle is also impressive. The scenery looks dense, the landscapes cast, and the sets looks very real and convincing. To tell you the truth, considering all of the CGI on the creatures and the backgrounds, I will be really surprised if this film does not receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects this year.
I didn’t end up seeing the film in 3-D for this review, but everything I hear says that it looks amazing in 3-D, and I can believe it. There are several scenes in her that look like they would look terrific in 3-D, like when mud and water splashes on the lens or an particularly creepy scene where Kaa stares right into the camera as if she were trying to hypnotize us as well as Mowgli.
I’l go into more detail about this when I get into the performances, but the all star cast assembled for this film do a very accomplished job selling all of these creatures with only their vocal performances. In fact, this may be some of the best casting we’ve seen this year.
If I may reference IGN once again, this movie is a wonder for both children and adults, and there’s plenty of emotional resonance for the adults here. The film is not a mindless action flick with nothing to say; there are many lessons to be gleaned from the story, like having respect for the power of nature and other people in your society, and not trying to constrict someone from being what that are because of what society thinks they should be. Jon Favreau ins’t going for cartoony joke but instead he wants to humble the audience by putting into perspective each person’s place in the world — and what happens when you try to prevent someone from being their true selves. One way he does this is not only by taping on nostalgia for the original animated film, but going back and bringing in more of Kipling’s original ideas too. The law of the jungle, often repeated in the book, was never said aloud in the 1967 version, but here the first two phrases of it becomes a mantra by which Mowgli and the jungle animals, namely the wolf pack, live by:
“NOW this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back;
For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
Those nostalgic for the original film should know that there are a couple of changes here and there that actually serve to strengthen this version of the story. We all remember Baloo for the fun, laid back portrayal that Phil Harris did in the old days, and this version is fairly similar, but here he is more lazy and, as Bagheera describes him, more of a con artist. The first thing Baloo does after he saves him from Kaa is that he tells the boy that he “owes him” by climbing a tall cliff (something he is not good at doing himself) to get some honey for him, under the false promise that the bees will not sting him. While this is more of a two-faced portrayal, Baloo is still likable and very fun mostly thanks to Bill Murray’s performance. We do still buy that bond he and Mowgli form.
On the other side of things, Bagheera remains much the same as the older version, the no-nonsense mother figure to Baloo laid back, fun loving father figure.
Raksha, Mowgli’s wolf mother, is naturally the maternal figure here as she worries for her son as he is sent away for his own safety. The scene where she and Mowgli have to say goodbye is both sad and very touching, helped, again, by Sethi’s performance. She even finds the courage to stand up and defend him, and the rest of her cubs, against the menace of Shere Khan (whom I will get to in a moment).
So that all sounds well and good, and it is. But if there is one concern that does need to be raised with The Jungle Book, it is the amount of darkness and realism to the whole world and especially to some of the characters Mowgli encounters. This makes sense since we are now in a live action feature format instead of a cartoon and we are in the jungle with a bunch of wild animals; lets face it, that world is extremely dangerous! There are quick a few jump scares found her and there that even surprised me, yet alone the kids that were in my screening. One example of this is Kaa, who in this version is a very creepy and seductive character (enhanced by Scarlett Johansson’s performance) that makes you uncomfortable to some extent as she entrances and hypnotizes Mowgli into her grasp.
I was also totally surprised by this film’s portrayal of King Louie. Originally portrayed as an fun-loving, lively orangutan in the original animation, here he is a gigantic ape that sits in the shadows and comes across as something far more threatening and far more dangerous, a true secondary antagonist. Definitely appropriate for this incarnation, but not what I was expecting going in.
And then we have our true villain, Shere Khan…Wow! There are a couple of welcome changes made here from the original; the cartoon delays Khan’s first appearance until quite a while in with the other characters constantly talking about him, building up his malice until he finally arrives, and when he does, he is deadly and also has a sense of class and dignity to him too. Here however, we get to see Khan right away and the second he appears on screen we are intimidated. He looks ferocious, he sounds bitter, he still has some of that class to him, and in this version of the story he is even given some deeper motivation by having something happen to him that helps fuel his hatred of man and his desire to kill Mowgli in particular. Bottom line, he makes for a great villain that demands our attention and steals the shows every time he appears.
This movie is an earnest event full of joy and wonder. Favreau looks at Kipling’s material and is able to take its core and translate it for a modern audience without diminishing any of its strengths. This is an adventure story for children at its core, though some of the movie’s exploration of loss and violence, and also Mowgli’s final decision, may or may not need further explanation for a younger viewer.
If there is a true negative to the film, it is that they do take times out to bring back the original’s two mot memorable music numbers, “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You”, and while the efforts are fun and nostalgic, and Sethi, Murray and Walken do what they can, the two songs do ultimately interrupt the flow of the otherwise naturally flowing film just a little bit, and the latter song does play out in a more ominous and menacing way than way originally intended. Still, the songs are fun enough to watch and don’t do too much harm in the end.
But as strong as the story is and as amazing as the story is, The Jungle Book would not be what it is without as strong cast of actors. I have already praised Neel Sethi for his performance as Mowgli, but it needs to be said again that he takes this huge responsibility on his shoulders and bears the burden admirably all throughout. Bill Murray is funny and charming as Baloo, playing it like a livable slacker and sort of buffoon like friend and mentor, bringing some levity to what often times becomes a very dark and scary story. On the flip side of that, Ben Kingsley is all business as Bagheera, coming off as the affectionate straight arrow who on’t put up any nonsense but really does care in the end, the stern parental figure in that regard. Idris Elba is imposing and somethings terrifying as Shere Khan. He projects bitter anger, class, and desire for revenge on the surface and his voice, coupled with the CGI animal, makes for a terrifying and threatening villain. Lupita Nyong’o is kind and affecting as Raksha, selling us all on her love for Mowgli and the lengths she would go through to protect him. Scarlett Johannson is smooth, seductive, and also quite scary as Kaa, using her smooth and calming voice to her advantage to create a creepy and disturbing scene with Sethi. Giancarlo Esposito has less to do by comparison as Akela, but he project the right authority in the role and the part does end up playing a shocking turn in the plot and motivation for Mowgli. Christopher Walken is imposing, but also fun and entertaining as King Louie, playing the part more like a mob boss of sorts that it less willing to make jokes or play games to get what he wants in this version, even his song reflects this. Other vocal performances include the late Garry Shandling as Ikki, Brighton Rose as Grey Brother, Jon Favreau as Pygmy Hog, Sam Raimi as Giant Squirrel, Russell Peters as Rocky the Indian Rhinoceros, Madeleine Favreau as Raquel the Indian Rhinoceros, Sara Arrington as Neelgai, and additional voices provided by Dee Bradley Baker, Artie Esposito, Sean Johnson, and Allan Trautman, as well as a live action performance by Ritesh Rajan as Mowgli’s father.
Overall, The Jungle Book is a very well executed and very well told update of the classic story for a new generation, and proves to be of far better quality than I, and I suspect a lot of people, might have initially expected. It may not necessarily top the 1967 original, but the film is such a tour-de-force with its strong performances, great sense of storytelling, and incredible visual effects that it doesn’t matter. It is a solid film with a good heart and, in spite of several intense and often scary moments, I think families will totally enjoy it. I am giving it a very enthusiastic four stars!