The Jungle Book (2016) / Adventure-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG for some sequences of scary action and peril
Running Time: 106 min.
Cast: Neel Sethi
Voices: Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Lupita Nyong'o, Christopher Walken, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito
Voices (cameo): Garry Shandling, Emjay Anthony, Jon Favreau, Sam Raimi
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: Justin Marks (based on the book by Rudyard Kipling)
Review published April 27, 2016
Jon Favreau (Chef, Cowboys & Aliens) finds himself back among Hollywood's better populist filmmakers with his adaptation of stories from Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book", which serves mostly as a remake of the first time Disney tackled the property back in 1967 (the 1994 live-action attempt has been long forgotten), in addition to its own unique story elements provided by screenwriter Justin Marks, whose only previous big-screen effort came from the critically maligned video game tie-in, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. This one brings it up to speed in terms of the animation, which is computer generated to the point of appearing photorealistic. You can hardly tell what's fake any longer, including the anthropomorphic animals who, outside of speaking English, look and act like the real deal.
In a likeable performance, commendable given he acted to characters and environments that weren't really there, Neel Sethi stars as young Mowgli, raised in the jungles of (presumably) India by a pack of wolves after his father is slain by the power-hungry tiger Shere Khan (Elba, Zootopia), who does not like humans one bit, fearing that the older Mowgli gets, the more he will threaten their way of life. Sensing the danger from the lurking tiger, Mowgli's savior and mentor, a panther named Bagheera (Kingsley, The Walk) decides that the young "man-cub" is in mortal danger, striving to escort the tyke to the place where he'll be most protected: a village of human beings in relatively close vicinity. However, the road to civilization proves to be just as treacherous, especially when Bagheera loses track of the man-cub's whereabouts, leaving him susceptible to giant bears, hypnotizing pythons, stinging bees, and disturbingly ambitious apes.
The Jungle Book continues the animated feature trend of putting big-name celebrities in the major voice roles, and while they are recognizable to the point where you might be taken out of the movie for a moment to reflect on the distinct voice you're hearing, they end up being perfectly cast for their respective roles. Bill Murray (Aloha) is a standout as the loveably wise-cracking Baloo, who uses his affability to try to get Mowgli to help him get the honey that exists just out of paw's reach, as the ursine animal is afraid to climb. Idris Elba is effectively intelligent, menacing and imposing as the voice of Shere Khan, who is seen as malicious in intent (the fact that he'd rather kill Mowgli for fun rather than just see him driven from the jungle automatically paints his heart as evil), even though there is definitely a logical method to his madness that just might turn out to be right, even if we're rooting against him. Young and impressionable kids will likely hide whenever he's on the screen. Christopher Walken (Eddie the Eagle) is also quite memorable as the 'mafia boss'-like King Louie, the Colonel Kurtz-like gigantopithecus (shown as a mammoth orangutan), bringing a new, disturbing nuance to the once lighthearted song, "I Wan'na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)" that evokes a bit of Planet of the Apes.
Some of the narrative choices are bold, including the deaths of a couple of prominent characters that are quite shocking, especially as they are unexpected in a modern-day PG-rated family film. There are some nifty new story creations, starting with the 'Peace Rock', a watering hole where all of the animals of the jungle have vowed to give up their squabbles while in the vicinity, allowing for the plot to build early in an environment where exposition is allowed to be defined but the resolution saved for later in the film. Kipling's original text is more rooted in this telling, including his "Law of the Jungle", recited on a couple of occasions to remind us that, just because all of these animals are far from human civilization, there is much appreciation for those who respect the code.
A sampling of the original songs from the 1967 version are brought up to speed here, including "The Bear Necessities", "Trust in Me" (heard during the end credits), and the aforementioned, "I Wan'na Be Like You". You don't have to watch the original in order to enjoy this 2016 updating, but for longtime fans, there are enough nods to keep the spirit of the old-time Disney treatment in mind without losing the more mature tone of this mildly scary edition. There are some tonal shifts in the story that switch from jovial one minute to frightening the next, but Favreau does a good job delineating the sections, even if, from outward appearances, that the premise of the movie is to see all of the adorable creatures from the original in a 'Rumble in the Jungle'-esque battle-royale to the death.
The Jungle Book is a fantastic technical achievement of eye-popping computer graphics more so than it is a work of great narrative fiction, but it hits enough of the right spots in terms of thrills, chills, and moments of mirth to make this a worthy adventure for a new generation. While it may not be as charming as the 1967 version, and won't like replace it in the hearts and minds of those who've loved it since childhood, in the end, it's still quite a fun jaunt in the jungle for young and old alike.
©2016 Vince Leo