The Jungle Book (2016)
dir. Jon Favreau
Starring Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken
~ SPOILER FREE ~
Yes, the last review I wrote was of a Disney movie. So (technically) will the next one. For some reason they’re packing all their movies this year into a couple of months, then going away until November/December. Not my problem.
It feels rather refreshing to go out and see a movie this nice. It’s not mind-blowing. It’s not going to change the world and it won’t make it onto any sort of list of my favourite movies. It just felt really, very nice to sit in a cinema for a couple of hours and enjoy what I saw without really having to think about it.
The animated Disney adaptation from the 60s isn’t my favourite of the “sketchy” era – I’ve always preferred both The Sword in the Stone and especially Robin Hood – but we had it on VHS and I remember watching it fairly regularly. I remember parts of it well and I’ll always love the classic songs. This new “live-action” version (and I use the largest of air quotes when I say “live-action” because really almost every element but lead actor Neel Sethi is computer generated) isn’t really a more accurate adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s books, but a sort of expanded version of the 60s movie (even down to use a music cue from that film in its opening moments). It follows basically the same storyline (with a slightly more cohesive plot and character arcs), adding some scenes, removing others (the Beatles-themed vultures), reducing some character roles (Kaa, the elephants) whilst giving others more screen time (Shere Khan and the wolves). Mowgli the man-cub (and boy with the hardiest feet ever), raised by wolves in the jungle, is threatened by the tiger Shere Khan and therefore has to leave his family to go to the man village, helped by his guardian Bagheera the panther and friend Baloo the bear. On the way, he faces many threats (seriously, this kid cannot catch a break), including stampedes, mudslides, a giant anaconda, the king of the monkeys and, eventually, Shere Khan himself.
There are several things I really enjoyed about this movie, and that I think are improvements over the animated version. First up is Mowgli’s character arc. The movie really is framed as a coming-of-age story for Mowgli, not just a series of events that he happens to get caught up in. He has a level of maturity not present in the 60s version, actively choosing to leave the wolf pack when they are threatened by Shere Khan. That we get more time showing his connection to his family and the jungle also makes his reluctance to leave them altogether much more sympathetic. Mowgli’s ingenuity is an important trait too, with his creative inventions used throughout the film.
The entire cast is strong, losing themselves in their roles. The most notable performance is Mowgli himself, played by Neel Sethi. For such a young actor, having to act entirely on a greenscreen aganst animated character, he does an admirable job. Not every line read it perfect, but he’s done very well. The other standout is the villain, Shere Khan. The movie does a great job of introducing him early and building him up as a threat, and by the climax of the story he’s a truly frightening presence (there are at least three major jumpscare moments in the movie, and most of them involve him). And oh boy, is it strange to hear Idris Elba be so threatening yet so calm after his more animated but ultimately kindly turn as the chief of police in Zootropolis. Some of the best (and scariest) scenes in the movie feature him, especially an utterly terrifying moment between him and the wolf pups that had me on the edge of my seat. And the whole thing ends with the sort of climatic fight scene I’ve wanted to see again from a Disney movie in a very long time.
The animation is gorgeous. It’s not exactly one-to-one realistic but it doesn’t have to be. The backdrops are lush and lively, and the animals have weight and come alive with help from their voice actors (though the realistic features on the characters mean that subtle movements and reactions are either difficult to spot, after being so prominent in a cartoony movie like Zootropolis, or just completely absent, as I noticed very few of them). There were one or two moments of Mowgli interacting with the animals and set that made me wonder how exactly they achieved them.
On the other side of the coin, Kaa’s scene has some fantastic atmosphere and is pretty chilling, but exists mostly to deliver exposition. There are also two musical numbers, one of which feels fairly natural but slightly awkward in delivery, and the second is completely out-of-place, and makes me wonder if this movie was originally intended to be a musical, but when they changed their minds they somehow forgot to remove this number (a third is relegated to the credits, where it belongs, just a shame it’s the best – musically and performance wise – of the three) On a related note, other than the recycled themes from the animated movie, nothing in the score particularly stood out.
There was also some use of contemporary language and colloquialisms, which sounded fine coming from Mowgli or even Baloo (to an extent) but felt especially jarring when used by animal side characters, when compared to Bagheera, Shere Khan or Raksha’s more elevated way of speaking. Little moments like this are fine when used as flavour for the world, making it feel more real, but there were points where it was almost as if they’d tried to create a comic relief character, then cut them, and spread their lines thin across the movie on some bit-parts. It’s not quite annoying, but it does come across as odd and took me out of the experience. There’s a bit of a blip in time taken to travel a certain distance, between the beginning and end of the film, too (where a journey that seems to take several hours, if not over a day, is then travelled entirely on foot in a much shorter time) though this might be explained away as being a more direct route?
Those are just moments though, and overall I recommend The Jungle Book for if you’ve got a lazy afternoon going spare, or perhaps as a rental when it comes out on DVD. Maybe as a double feature with the animated classic. I would also call it my favourite so far of the live action Disney remakes (though again, the “live action” part is shaky), after the so-so Cinderella and messy Maleficent. I’m sure you’ll find something in there to enjoy, and just generally have a nice time with it. I did.