Film Review: The Jungle Book

Release Date: April 15, 2016

Running Time: 105 Minutes

The latest live-action remake of animated Disney classics is The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau. Like the 1967 cartoon, it tells the story of Mowgli, a human boy raised by wolves who is being told he has to return to mankind for his own safety, but wants to stay in the jungle. Actually, it sort of isn’t live-action. Aside from Mowgli all of the characters are CGI and the jungle environment itself was created in a computer. Actual filming took place in a studio. However, by taking extensive photos and film of real environments and animals, the visual effects team has created a marvelously realistic and vibrant feast for the eyes.

This film is based more on the 1967 cartoon than Rudyard Kipling’s book. For example, King Louie never appeared in Kipling’s work and was actually created by Disney. Also, the characters’ behavior is more based on the cartoon as well. The story, however, is expanded upon and tied together more cohesively. The theme of man’s ability to bring forth fire plays a greater role, and Mowgli’s adventures are more serialized than a string of thinly connected episodes. There are also a few twists that keep the story fresh and less predictable for both those who read Kipling’s work and saw the original animated film.

The voice acting in this film is great. Ben Kingsley is perfect as the wise and awesome black panther Bagheera. Scarlett Johansen plays the large python Kaa, a choice that was initially controversial as this changed the gender of the character. Her one scene features a wonderfully ominous buildup that slowly reveals her enormous and terrifying form. Kaa is definitely creepier here than the comically inept side-villain of the original. Instead of swirling cartoon eyes, her hypnosis is conveyed by shimmering eyes. The role of the wolves is largely expanded. In the original film they appear in the beginning and are then left alone. Here they appear throughout the whole movie with Lupita Nyong’o voicing Mowgli’s adopted mother. There’s also Mowgli’s “brothers” some very cute wolf cubs.

Idris Elba does a fantastic job as Shere Khan. Shere Khan was a good villain in the animated feature, but here he’s absolutely terrifying and has much more screentime. His character motivation is altered. In both films he hates men and wants to kill Mowgli, but in the original he seemed to be doing more for the perverted sport of it, while here he has more of a vengeance angle going on.

The two highlights are Bill Murray as Baloo the bear and Christopher Walken as King Louie. Baloo doesn’t have singer Phil Harris’ rich voice like in the original, but Murray does about as good a job in his own way. Like in the original he’ll definitely get the most love form viewers. Christopher Walken of course is just naturally amazing, so having him voice the king of the primates, even singing “I Wanna Be Like You”, is awesome. It should be noted that instead of being an orangutan, he’s an extinct ape called a Gigantopithecus, and he’s really, really large, the largest character outside of the elephants. Between his size, the buildup to his appearance, and his behavior, he proves to be much more frightening the character’s first incarnation, who was a short and goofy “king of the swingers”.

Then of course there’s the sole human character, Mowgli. Surprisingly, despite being both a child actor and having to act in front of a blue screen while talking to animal puppets (as the other characters are CGI), Neel Sethi does a good job. The character of Mowgli is much improved from the 1967 version. Instead of an idiot child who walks headlong into trouble all the time and naively trusts every predator, he’s intelligent and isn’t too stupid to run away from a tiger. He’s also a bit of a genius, as he’s able to fashion many tools to help him keep up with the animals. Really, our brains and dexterous hands are the only things that keep us above other animals and I love how the recent Jungle Book incorporates this fact.

The Jungle Book is a great remake, far better than the original, which was fun but not one of Disney’s stronger offerings. It uses CGI correctly and has amazing voice acting. One complaint might be that it gets pretty intense and scary for a kid’s film, but you know what? Kids should be allowed to be scared. The old Disney cartoons of the 30s and 40s had some pretty frightening scenes and parents don’t complain about those. A more valid complaint might be that this film has the current Hollywood trend of taking old fairy tales and stories and making them “bigger” (think of Snow White and the Huntsman turning that tale into a sword-and-sorcery epic). But at least Shere Khan isn’t commanding an army of evil animals or there aren’t a bunch of humans attacking the jungle with guns and torches. This is one of those films that can be enjoyed by all ages and not just because older people will have nostalgia. It’s the original Jungle Book with enough twists and changes to keep it fresh and engrossing. Christopher Walken as a giant ape alone makes this worth seeing.

Final Rating: 8/10

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