While man has moved on from the jungle to cities, committees, and ease,
There’s something intriguing and lavish about the deep green of the trees.
We look back at creatures and corners too fierce and exotic to tame,
Caught up in an ancient attraction too dark and uncharted to name.
The beauty of virginal wilderness and wonders no eye has beheld
Still haunt we who harness the future yet still to the past are impelled.
We gladly embrace what is modern, by comfort’s convenience beguiled,
Yet even a civilized person can fall to the call of the wild.
MPAA rating: PG
I had considered reviewing Disney’s live-action version of The Jungle Book as a Cartoon Comparison, but since I’ve already covered the original 1967 feature, a separate review seemed better. Ever since Disney started in on translating their classic animated films into live-action retellings, I’ve been skeptical. Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent weren’t content to just translate the story but added in dark subtexts that ruined every shred of the original that they incorporated. I was never that fond of the animated Alice in Wonderland or even Sleeping Beauty so it was a lesser form of sacrilege to me, but I’ve always had a soft spot for The Jungle Book. How could Disney possibly do it justice? Well, I’m relieved to say they did, as almost every other reviewer seems to agree. In a world where we’ve seen CGI conjure almost everything imaginable, Disney and director Jon Favreau still managed to impress.
I’m shocked to say it, but this version might actually be better than the original because of how it fleshes out the story with material from Rudyard Kipling’s book. After we’re introduced to Mowgli (very young but good Neel Sethi), his wolf family, and the wolves’ rhyming creed plucked straight from the book, a drought causes the Peace Rock in the riverbed to be revealed, effecting a Water Truce during which predators must cooperate with prey for the sake of water. Such is the Law of the Jungle. This clever rule allows Mowgli to meet the murderous tiger Shere Khan up front, whereas the animated Mowgli isn’t as aware of Shere Khan’s threat until the end. Actually showing the restrained antagonism at the river also gives a more immediate reason for the wolves’ decision to send him back to the human village for his own safety.
The cartoon is far more episodic than many Disney films, bouncing from Kaa the python to the elephants to Baloo to King Louie to Kaa again to those Beatles-style vultures before the end. Favreau’s film follows almost the same chronology (minus the vultures and Kaa’s second appearance), but provides far better connections to create a more cohesive story. Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa, for example, isn’t just a random danger but elucidates some of Mowgli’s history during her brief scene. Christopher Walken as a more menacing Gigantopithecus King Louie instills the idea of fire’s power in Mowgli, and that fire plays a far more significant and complex role in the climax than simply appearing in a flash of lightning and scaring off Shere Khan. I don’t mind how the animated version was told, but the new filmmakers found the perfect way to tell essentially the same tale (albeit with a different ending) in a uniquely well-rounded way for modern moviegoers.
Easily the best things about the original Disney cartoon were the voicework and music. Every voice actor embodies that character, and I wasn’t sure that new voices could pull it off. One of my coworkers has an issue with talking animal movies like Babe or The Jungle Book, seeing them as an abomination of nature, and hearing recognizable voices coming out of the mouths of CGI animals did take some getting used to. At the first listen, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera and Bill Murray as Baloo don’t seem to quite suit their roles, but the more I heard them, the better they fit. Even Walken does well as a more mobster-like King Louie in the film’s biggest action scene. Probably the weakest voice casting was Johansson as the honey-voiced Kaa, but that could be due to how briefly she’s heard; plus, I’m sure Sterling Holloway seemed like an odd choice in 1967. Likewise, Idris Elba is a more fierce-sounding Shere Khan, but there’s something so sleekly villainous about George Sanders’s voice in the cartoon. Bill Murray’s Baloo managed to surprise me the most, offering the best comic relief, and even if he doesn’t quite compare with Phil Harris in the cartoon, I won’t mind future generations growing up with these revised characters. Unfortunately, the songs don’t translate as well, and while “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You” work well enough, they could have been omitted and left to the superior cartoon versions.
Much has been said of the film’s visual quality, and the CGI animators truly outdid themselves. Like Life of Pi, the interactions between the boy and the simulated animals are seamless; CGI hasn’t quite reached the point that I can’t tell it’s still CGI, but it’s well on its way. Also, even though this is a far darker adaptation of the story, with more peril and death than the cartoon, the color pallet wasn’t limited for the sake of keeping it dark. The jungle is a lush wonder, like a live-action version of the greenery that made Disney’s Tarzan so stunning. The mood of the forest morphs depending on the tone of the scene, but it’s always a beauty.
Succeeding as both a faithful retelling and a thrilling reimagining, this latest Jungle Book does almost everything right for a remake, even making Mowgli more industrious and clever than his animated counterpart. The voices take some getting used to, but they don’t hamper the gorgeous visuals and the flow of the story. Disney doesn’t seem to be slowing down with its live-action remakes, and even if I’m still concerned about what they might do to Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, The Jungle Book reinforced the hope that Maleficent almost destroyed.
Best line: (Mowgli) “But I’m helping Baloo get ready for hibernation.”
(Bagheera) “Bears don’t hibernate in the jungle.”
(Baloo) “Not full hibernation, but I nap a lot.”
Rank: List Runner-Up (on par with the original)
© 2016 S. G. Liput
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