The Jungle Book (2016) – Movie Review

The Jungle Book
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Written by: Justin Marks
Starring: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Lupita Nyong’o & Christopher Walken
Music: John Debney
Certificate: PG
Release Date: April 15th 2016

Throughout the history of Walt Disney Animation, they’ve done a terrific job of making THEIR animated films THE definitive version of the material. Or at least the version that has the most public association. When people think of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, they don’t think of the Brothers Grimm fairytale, they think of the 1937 animated classic. Same for “Cinderella”, or “Alice in Wonderland” or “Bambi”, “Dumbo”, “The Little Mermaid” and more. None of those properties were created by the House of Mouse, but that company has cemented their legacy.

When people think of “The Jungle Book”, hardly anyone thinks about the collection of short stories written in 1894 by Rudyard Kipling. Instead, they think about the 1967 animated musical released by Disney and directed by Wolfgang Reitherman. Thanks to its captivating backdrops, memorable characters and catchy music, ‘The Jungle Book‘ is one of Disney’s most iconic animated films. Now, in Disney’s new wave of live-action remakes, director Jon Favreau is putting his stamp on the story with state-of-the-art CGI and an acclaimed cast. Does this movie do more than the bare necessities to get by or will the original animated film continue to be the definitive version?
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Mowgli (Sethi) is a man-cub who has been raised by a pack of wolves in the Jungle for almost his entire life. However, as he grows older tensions begin to grow between the peaceful animals and a fearsome tiger named Shere Khan (Elba) who wants Mowgli killed before he can grow up and become a threat. Panther Bagheera (Kingsley) decides to take Mowgli to his own kind, but the two get separated and Mowgli is found by a lazy bear named Baloo (Murray). But with Shere Khan in pursuit, Mowgli must decide whether to stand his ground in the jungle, or escape and put his adoptive family at risk by finding a new home at the “man village”.

Much like the great ‘Cinderella‘ movie last year, Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book‘ is more-or-less a remake of the iconic animated film, as opposed to bringing in additional content from the original source material. Instead, it expands on the animated movie, adds more depth and themes and translates the aesthetic into live-action. The 1967 ‘The Jungle Book‘ is an iconic film, but watching it nearly 50 years later, it does serve as a short walking-tour of the jungle setting as opposed to working as a concrete narrative. The film is mainly held together by fun characters and songs that have become a staple of the Disney empire ever since.
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With that in mind, the additions this 2016 remake of ‘The Jungle Book‘ includes makes it superior in almost every single way when it comes to the story and character. For the first hour, it initially seems like another walking-tour movie with some disconnected scenes and characters coming together to hit the familiar beats of the animated film. But as it progresses it ultimately tips its hand to reveal that it’s dug deeper into the themes of adolescence and has definitely has more going on in the subtext than people would be expecting.

Throughout the movie Mowgli, and by proxy the audience, learn about the “red flower” which is the name the animals in the jungle have given to fire. A source of great warmth, it has also brought destruction and death and it’s feared and desired by many denizens of the jungle. Shere Kahn fears it because man used it to scar his face, but the Gigantopithecus King Louie desires it so he can use it as a weapon and to rule. Basically, the red flower is the “One Ring of Power” and the focus on it serves as a basis for Mowgli’s growth.
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The big change to the original animated film is with Mowgli himself and how he needs to grow up and become his own person. He was raised as a wolf, but he doesn’t run in formation with them, he’s not as fast but he’s able to build and craft tools and weapons using his natural ingenuity. He takes the decision upon himself to leave the jungle after Shere Khan’s threat so his wolf-family don’t have to and he has to learn to grow up into adolescence. But Shere Khan’s intervention which results in the potential harm of his old family requires Mowgli to make an important decision; will he use the destructive and prejudice-free red flower for revenge or will he use his creativity and ingenuity for preservation?
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The moment that caused these themes to click for me was the appearance of King Louie who initially seems like the fun-loving king from the original animated film, but quickly reveals himself as a deranged and mentally unstable lunatic who probably hasn’t left his throne for years. Louie wants Mowgli to make fire and in return he will grant him whatever wish he wants, but when Mowgli tells him he doesn’t know how to make fire, he winds up chasing him throughout his castle in such a deranged state-of-mind that his own empire crumbles around him and ultimately ends up killing him (well, as far as someone can be killed in a Disney fairytale). Louie is a reflection on what COULD happen if Mowgli decides to take the path that embraces the red flower and having something like that demonstrated with such a memorable character helps to hit that point home.

In recent years we’ve had Disney try and promote scientific thinking and invention throughout their films. They’ve used characters in ‘Iron Man‘ and ‘Ant-Man‘ to fund schemes to get children into science, they promoted the ideal in ‘Big Hero 6‘ last year etc. ‘The Jungle Book‘, oddly enough, is another movie that promotes these ideals; that necessity is the mother of invention and that creativity and ingenuity is what makes a man, not destruction and fire.

I guess you could say that the “bare necessities” are the mother of invention? *ba-dum-tish*
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That’s not to say that the story is flawless as there are a couple of structural issues. For example, the hypnotic snake Kaa only gets a single scene and it feels more like an obligatory cameo than anything more substantial. Except for the fact that she parlays valuable plot information that she couldn’t have possibly known. It also feels like a sub-plot involving Shere Khan intimidating the wolf pack is missing a scene or two. One scene has Shere Khan injure Bahgeera whilst in pursuit of Mowgli who then escapes. But there isn’t a moment where Shere Khan interrogates Bahgeera to find out where he’s going. A scene like that feels suspicious by its absence and I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a few deleted scenes in the home-media release.

But a lot of that is made up for with new additions and added depth to the story, particularly with the world-building and the characterisation. Early on, there’s a draught in the jungle and when the water level falls to reveal a large rock in the valley, the animals use that rock to signify peace with all the species. We have the added layers to Baloo who initially starts out as something akin to a con-man who uses Mowgli to stock up on honey and as further excuses to be lazy and inactive. It’s this engaging starting point that makes Baloo’s changes in attitude and his actions throughout the course of the movie flesh him out into a three-dimensional character. Whilst the original Baloo in the 1967 film was enjoyable, he was hardly three-dimensional.
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Minor characters like Kaa and Akela don’t get much material to work with, but characters like Bagheera, King Louie and Raksha come across like fully formed creations and Shere Khan…crikey, Shere Khan. I could talk about how his added backstory helps to justify this character’s actions but the way he’s sprinkled throughout the story always leaves the audience on the edge of their seat. In the original animated film, Shere Khan was always mentioned but he barely appeared until the end where he was quickly disposed of. Trust me, if you remember anything about Shere Khan in the animated film, it’s solely because of George Sanders’ imposing voice-over job.

But Shere Khan’s presence here is not only bolstered by a terrifically layered performance by Idris Elba but the scenes of him intimidating the wolf-pack are legitimately intense. In fact, one scene where he acts almost parental to the wolf cubs in front of the mother Raksha made one kid in my screening cry out for his mummy. And I’m not making fun of that kid. I wanted my mummy too. Disney have been doing a great job with their live-action villains recently, like Cate Blanchett’s wicked step-mother in ‘Cinderella‘ and Idris Elba’s Shere Khan is just another one to add to the pile of successes, as well as King Louie.
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Performance-wise, I’m not going to say that Neel Sethi was a revelation as Mowgli but in terms of leading-actors who have to carry a special-effects heavy blockbuster, he sure is one helluva find. There are a few moments where he looks direction-less (as he spent all his time on a sound-stage where he, presumably, talked to floating ping-pong balls), but those are few and far between as most of the time he acts convincingly alongside the walking, talking, singing animals and is a fun and engaging lead. He’s another definite improvement from the original animated film as the Mowgli there was mostly just a whiny cipher who walked from set-piece to set-piece.

But across the board, everyone here does stellar work. Ben Kingsley is a terrific Bagheera, Bill Murray is now THE definitive Baloo and is so relaxed and endearing it’s impossible to not love him and Lupita Nyong’o brings much-needed emotional weight to the earlier scenes between Mowgli and the wolf-pack. Christopher Walken as King Louie may seem like stunt-casting but the more you see of this character and the more rabidly intense he gets, the more you realise how perfect this casting is. Scarlett Johansson only has one scene as Kaa but what she does is terrific and if you stick around throughout the credits, you’ll even hear her sing a rendition of “Trust In Me” which isn’t in the actual film.
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Speaking of the music, yes there are some musical sequences taken from the animated film. The music by the Sherman Brothers and Terry Gilkyson makes a few appearances here with “Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You” being included. Those who don’t know anything about the original music may be caught off guard by their inclusion, but they’re definitely welcome to the initiated. While the marching elephants do make an appearance in the movie, they’re treated more as creator-like figures as opposed to marching comic-relief. Personally, I feel like a version of “Colonel Hathi’s March” wouldn’t have gone amiss, even if it was just a music cue in the soundtrack.

But yes, Christopher Walken singing “I Wan’na Be Like You” is worth the price of admission alone.
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In terms of the visuals, every so often I’d look at a small monkey or a flying squirrel and I’d think “that looks a bit off”. But then I’d remember that the other 99% of the frame has been entirely created on a computer and then I’d stop that silly talk. ‘The Jungle Book‘ is an astounding technical achievement. Filmed almost entirely on a sound-stage in Los Angeles, the jungle setting is astonishingly convincing. And the environments are varied as well. We do have the tropical jungle, but we also have wide open plains, muddy canyons, rivers and the transition from the bright jungle to the dark canopy where Kaa is found is akin to travelling from Cleethorpes to Grimsby (in-joke).

The animals look amazing with them all having presence and a sense of weight and scale. They’re also incredibly expressive when you take into account that there’s not much motion-capture and the actors only provided voice-work. Yet you can still see Bill Murray-like expressions in Baloo or Christopher Walken’s face on King Louie. The lighting, water, even the clothing on Mowgli is all artificial and it just…how do you give the visual effects artist enough credit here? Jon Favreau has always utilised the latest in visual effects with ‘Iron Man‘ and ‘Zathura‘ but ‘The Jungle Book‘ is on a whole other level. And musically, yes the songs are great and the soundtrack is worth a listen but the score by John Debney (who has collaborated with Favreau before on ‘Elf‘, ‘Zathura‘ and ‘Iron Man 2‘) is just as big in scale with a huge variety of tracks. The music can be light-hearted, dramatic, intense, mythical and more and Debney doesn’t get a note wrong.
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Despite one or two story mishaps, after seeing this new version of ‘The Jungle Book‘ I’m having a hard time imagining anyone making and more complete version of this material. While the animated film has its charms, Jon Favreau’s take is, quite frankly, superior in every respect. It’s funny, smartly crafted, brilliantly cast, has great three-dimensional characters, is a visual spectacle and even has respectable themes at its core. Honestly, while I’m intrigued to see what Andy Serkis has in store over at Warner Bros. for ‘Jungle Book: Origins‘ in 2018, I can imagine him getting very very nervous in the face of this accessible, enthralling and brilliant epic.

I give ‘The Jungle Book‘ 4 and a half stars out of 5.

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Posted In: 2016 Reviews Current Reviews Reviews

Author: Trilbee

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Posted: 21st Apr 16