- Movie Rating -

The Jungle Book (2016)

| April 16, 2016

It shouldn’t surprise anyone when Disney shamelessly toots its own horn.  The legacy of this paragon of family entertainment has such a rich history and such of wealth of classics to its name that you sort of aren’t surprised to find it congratulating itself.  That may come from the fact that recently they’ve been kind of on a roll with the revamping of Star Wars, the outpouring of good Marvel adaptations and, of course, their refurbishing of old animated classics into live action.  Last year we got Cinderella and this August we get Pete’s Dragon, but presently we have The Jungle Book.

What I thought would be a tired retread propped up as an excuse to sell toys and soundtracks turns out to be a lively and highly entertaining fairy tale, one that has been crafted with loving care by filmmakers who wanted to make something special.  Far from being just another brand name, they’ve reached into their bag of filmmaking tricks and given us one of the nicest surprises of 2016 so far.

The story here barely resembles Rudyard Kipling’s 122 year old book and instead borrows generously from Disney’s 1967 animated feature which, I’ll admit, has never sat all that highly with me among their classics.  It’s OK but the animation felt cut rate when compared to the lush and beautiful animation of Snow White and Fantasia and Pinocchio and Dumbo.  It’s a classic only in the sense that everyone remembers it.  This new live action version is a red-blooded adventure that moves with a brisk pace along a thin storyline that allows the characters some time to breathe.

The story you already know.  Mowgi the orphaned man-cub has been raised in the jungle by his stern panther mentor Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), but taught the laws and ways of the jungle by the pack of wolves that he claims as family.  Yet, a problem circles the jungle in the form of the Bengal tiger Shere Kahn (voiced with full East-End helf by Idris Elba), a mean and uncompromising bully who forces his will on the other animals of the jungle and places himself on the singular mission of tearing the man-cub limb from limb – his purpose, in its own twisted way, kind of makes sense (boys grow to men and men are the destroyers of nature).  The wolves protect their charge, but with Shere Kahn’s determination to kill him borders on the psychotic.  For the safety of the pack, Mowgli decides to leave.

From there it is one adventure after another as the kid runs across the seductive python Kaa (voiced with slithery seduction by Scarlett Johannson); a Mafioso orangutan named King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walkin apparently imitating Brando) and of course, the lazy Baloo the Bear (voiced by Bill Murray).  Much like the earlier film, The Jungle Book isn’t much on story so much as it is an excuse for action set pieces and breathtaking visuals.  Of the action, I was reminded of the Indiana Jones adventures before the series started focusing on Indy’s family issues.

This movie really takes advantage of its roots, as a boy’s adventure tale that is less on character and more on the connective tissue of action set-pieces.  The movie has great action, but it’s also a movie that has a great sense of time and place.  The time is somewhere in the late 19th century but the story feels timeless, as if this is a self-contained world unto itself where animals communicate verbally and think like humans.  It’s also a movie that wants to be a story without the adamants of the real world.  I grow weary of kid’s films in which the filmmakers feel the need to reference modern speech and show modern devices as if kids can’t relate to a film without video games, cell phones and the latest schoolyard buzzwords.  Outside of one clever little in-joke, the movie contains a world unto itself without interference of anything we might recognize.

One of the great achievements of this film is that it really makes the jungle come alive.  Director John Favreau allows the camera time soak in the landscapes which are lush with the greenery of the leaves and the trees and the grass.  It reminds me how many outdoor adventures tighten in for close-ups.  I loved the backgrounds in which the jungle seems to go on and on for miles.  I loved time spent at rivers, lake beds, mountain cliffs, and treetops.  There’s an old temple that seems like it’s held together by spit and a promise.  There’s the rocky terrain where the wolves gather that almost seems like and elaborate alter.  Here is a movie that is really in love with the jungle.

Character details were never Kipling’s strong-point especially in The Jungle Book, and what amazed me here is that they’ve been changed a bit from the earlier film.  Bagheera is still the stern parent, but Ben Kingsley’s rendition is less panicky than the one played by Sebastian Cabot.  I loved that King Louie has been rewritten to fit Christopher Walkin’s delievery.  This Kong-sized beast works out a mafia-style deal with the boy to bring him the red flower (man-made fire) and then slyly works the conversation into “I Wanna Be Like You.”

Baloo the Bear contains a lot of Bill Murray’s trademark wisecracks but this version is a little more vulnerable, not over-the-top, but filled with insecurities that are only skin deep.  And Kaa the python is a seductress who not only hypnotizes her dinner, but also recalls to Mowgli his backstory.  We see how he came to be in the jungle through a visionary sequence seen over an ironically dramatic instrumental rendition of “Trust in Me.”  It’s great.

But the major concern was little Neel Sethi who plays the key role of Mowgli.  As the only major character in the film that isn’t made of computer graphics, I was worried that he would ruin the moments with a lot of kid-actor mugging.  But he doesn’t.  He’s a natural actor, not a great actor, but you never feel that he has to be out front at every moment.

I haven’t even mentioned the computer graphics here, which are breathtaking.  Taking a cue from Babe, the movie is wall-to-wall with animal characters who speak and act like humans.  It’s effective enough that you forget that you’re watching a special effect, and that’s a high compliment to the technicians.  Their names in the credits look like the census of a small country.  This is a movie in which the credits have a credit for the folks who made the credits!

Movies like this are so rare.  Yes, it’s a remake, but it performs the function of a remake by improving on the original in new and interesting ways.  This is a quietly majestic film has been recreated in a way that is funny and often exhilarating.  I was impressed by the generosity here.  I was impressed by the filmmaking skill, they aren’t just giving us a product, and they’re trying to create something exciting, taking a tepid old classic and giving a new coat of paint that is bright and colorful and beautiful and, in its own way, some kind of wonderful.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2016) View IMDB Filed in: Action, Kids, Recent