The live-action remake that’s been called one of the most technologically advanced movies of all time is here. Disney has gone back to the well of their offbeat 1967 animated classic The Jungle Book, and given it new life as a technical marvel on a similar level to Avatar or Life of Pi. With only the bare necessities of live-action elements (Neel Sethi as lone man-cub in the jungle Mowgli; a bit of dirt; a few excellent tufts of grass), The Jungle Book as directed by Jon Favreau impresses consistently and immersively with its visual effects. But ironically, the secret to this remake’s success is the humanity it finds in unlikely places, and once the nostalgia goggles come off and the 3D glasses come on, 2016 has delivered a better Jungle Book than 1967.
Mowgli is a man-cub raised by a stately wolfpack, watched over by the wise Black Panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). But the formidable Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) cannot abide a human in the jungle and vows to put Mowgli in his rightful place: the tiger’s belly. Charged to find refuge at the nearby man-village, Mowgli makes his way there, on the way encountering characters like the hypnotic snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the affable bear Baloo (Bill Murray), and the imperious Gigantopithecus King Louis (Christopher Walken). But on the journey, what kind of man will Mowgli become?
The basic bones of the story are familiar, but it is the adjustments to that story (relative to Disney’s own animated version) that make this a dynamic retelling. There are weighty themes of technology (called “tricks” in the jungle), and what it means for a human capable of that level of potentially dangerous creativity to live among animals. The concern for the jungle as a viable society is reflected by the incorporation of the Law of the Jungle, and other cultural practices such as the species-crossing water truce when a seasonal watering hole opens for all predators and prey alike to feed upon. These themes help to make the jungle feel like an ecosystem and a society; it’s good world-building. And of course that jungle is gorgeous to look at, made even more impressive by the fact that it’s almost entirely digital. The VFX artistry is overwhelming, but there’s not much more to say about it beyond variations of “wow”.
So let’s turn attention to the animal characters. A great paradox of the 1967 film is that it tries to sell a divide between the human Mowgli, and the jungle… while portraying half the animals as all-too-specific human caricatures. The elephants were la-di-da officers, God save the King and all that, representing the British Raj occupying government in India; the vultures were modeled on the Beatles; King Louis was a scat-singing jazz musician; and Baloo was a laidback swinger. The tagline? “The jungle is jumpin’”. It’s funny, then, that the characters of this Jungle Book are more human than the human spoofs. Bagheera is a philosopher, and fierce when he needs to be, not just an inflexible caretaker. Baloo is a con man with a heart of gold, and when he takes a brave heroic action late in the film it hits that much more because of this characterization. Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) is an active presence resisting Shere Khan’s tyranny. The elephants’ overhaul is particularly noteworthy. They are recapitulated as the closest thing to gods in the jungle, but not because they represent white imperialism as they did before. They do not speak; they are majestic, inextricably tied with nature, and their military drilling song from the animated movie would be absolutely incompatible with this interpretation. (Speaking of music, this film is no pure musical, but I’ll say that fans of the music won’t be disappointed – and stay through the credits!)
The characters who really steal the show for me are the trio of villains. Scarlett Johansson excels in a creepy, all-too-brief appearance as Kaa. Idris Elba’s eloquent snarl fits Shere Khan like a glove. The tiger becomes a great villain almost just by force of personality, as it would take a couple more Shere Khan scenes to really lock in his character motivation. Elba’s vocal performance is so mesmeric that he overpowers any deficiencies in the writing.
But my favorite character is Christopher Walken’s King Louis, radiating both mirth and menace. Louis wants Mowgli’s technological tricks to dominate the jungle, and the threat in Walken’s performance gives an extra layer to his delightful rendition of “I Wan’na be Like You” (now stripped of the uncomfortable racial coding it carried in the animated version). Louis’ desire to gain the power that humans possess is reflected in his residence in the ruins of a Hindu temple. This makes him a great foil for Mowgli, as the youth must find his own definition of manhood. In general, holding court with King Louis, and the entire sequence at his temple, is the highlight of The Jungle Book in my eyes.
So at last we come to Mowgli, the man-cub everyone’s making such a big fuss about. While Neel Sethi has a lot of charisma to carry such an abstract performance surrounded by green screens, that doesn’t negate a few… odd acting moments of his. He’s trying his damnedest with little to bounce off of, so I understand, but suffice to say Sethi’s Mowgli isn’t likely to be anyone’s favorite character. He’s someone that things happen to, the viewpoint character who’s essential to the cast dynamic but not much more. When given lines like “Are you kidding me?” and “Seriously?”, the feral child isn’t all that feral.
While the film makes strong structural changes when it comes to the succession of incidents surrounding Mowgli, it doesn’t fully escape the episodic nature of the previous 1967 version. A few scenes still feel a bit disjointed from the whole, and the tonal shift with the introduction of Baloo is a sharp one. Indeed, a lot of what’s awkward about this Jungle Book is the line it walks between heavy dramatics and callbacks to the insouciant animated version. This manifests in a few ways. For one example: The action is commendably visceral without being inappropriately violent, but there is one fight scene at the climax that is lit very poorly in an apparent attempt to obscure the implication of gore, and to draw the line at a PG rating. I understand the need for compromise, but the scene would have benefited by commitment in either direction.
Getting back to technical matters, the artificial cinematography by Bill Pope is ravishing, many tableaus of simulated nature being worthy of being framed on someone’s wall. And composer John Debney delivers a really solid score, turning from darkly loungey (the opening Jungle theme and Kaa’s theme) to lushly gorgeous (the destined-for-repeat-plays Law of the Jungle theme) to instilling a sense of awe (the elephant theme) to percussively dangerous (Shere Khan’s theme).
Jon Favreau has overseen an efficient, beautiful to look at, thematically interesting Jungle Book populated by memorable versions of vintage characters. The changes from Disney’s previous incarnation of the story are of particular fascination, in fact so much so that I didn’t always discuss the film as standing on its own. (And look out for a very different ending in this version.) But on its own, 2016’s Jungle Book is a stunning virtual creation. This is a film I quite like, but taken with last year’s Cinderella, which I love, hopefully Disney’s live-action remake winning streak can continue. A weak 8/10.
P.S.: *MILD SPOILERS* What’s going on with the Lion King influence? Shere Khan is not only given a facial scar, he takes over the wolves’ territory similar to how Scar took over Pride Rock during Simba’s exile. Shere Khan’s death falling into the fire is visually akin to Mufasa’s. There’s a herd scene reminiscent of the one from The Lion King. And by making Baloo a con artist who advises the young hero to relax and wait for the bare necessities, he resembles Timon.