Disney takes a shot a retelling one of their own adaptations. This time, they have Jon Favreau at the helm and the aide of a figurative ton of CGI.
The story doesn’t stray far from the one Disney concocted for the animated film in 1967 using parts of Rudyard Kipling’s stories “Jungle Books”. The protagonist Mowgli (Neel Sethi) was orphaned when the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) killed his father. Mowgli was found by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), who brought him to be raised by a wolf pack. With Bagheera’s help, the pack leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Mowgli’s adoptive wolf-mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) raise Mowgli as part of the pack, teaching him the laws of the jungle, etc. This includes a poem about a wolf’s strength coming from the pack, that is kind of a mantra in the movie.
Shere Khan was disfigured when Mowgli’s human father burned him and holds a grudge against Mowgli, wanting to kill him before he grows from a man-cub into a man. When he threatens the wolf pack to turn over Mowgli, the boy decides to leave and go be with his own kind in order to prevent unnecessary deaths. Bagheera tries to lead Mowgli to the man village, but they are separated when Shere Khan ambushes them. Mowgli unwittingly wanders into the clutches of the carnivorous python, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson). Kaa hypnotizes him while revealing to him the truth about what happened between Shere Khan and his father. Before Kaa can eat Mowgli, he’s saved by Baloo the bear (Bill Murray). Baloo convinces Mowgli to help him get honey in exchange for saving his life. The two quickly become friends and Mowgli decides to stay with him instead of continuing to the man village. Unbeknownst to Mowgli, Shere Khan has taken control of the wolfpack and killed Akela in the hopes that it will draw Mowgli back into the jungle.
Bagheera eventually finds Mowlgi and Baloo and convinces Baloo that Mowgli isn’t safe in the jungle. Before they can get him to the village, Mowlgi is kidnapped by the minions of the giant orangutan, King Louie (Christopher Walken). Louie wants Mowgli to give him the secret to man’s Red Flower aka fire. Baloo and Bagheera arive and rescue Mowlgi but, during the altercation, Louie reveals that Shere Khan killed Akela. Mowgli steals a torch from the village in order to go get revenge on the tiger. He races back to the wolfpack but ends up setting the jungle on fire when some unnoticed embers fall from the torch. Mowgli confronts Shere Khan but throws away the torch when he realizes the other animals are afraid of it; choosing to rely on the strength of the pack instead. Mowgli is able to lead Shere Khan into a trap, causing him to fall to a fiery death. Then, some elephants arrive and help them put out the jungle fire by rerouting the flow of the river. This is less random than it sounds because Mowgli and Bagheera had run into the elephants before and Bagheera explained how they’re like jungle royalty and how they created the jungle. After the danger passes, Raksha becomes the pack leader and Mowgli returns to the pack along with Bagheera and Baloo.
Admittedly, it would’ve been hard for me to avoid comparing this movie to the 1967 release but this movie made it so that I didn’t have to. It’s not a shot-for-shot remake of the animated movie, but there’s definitely several shots taken directly from that movie. The visual homages were great, and I liked the way that the animal characters skated the line between anthropomorphic facial expressions and realistic representation. Overall, the CGI in the movie did look really good. My only complaint where that there were a couple of scenes around the 2nd act where the animals started to look like they had been animated over the top of a still background. Maybe that was also an homage to classic Disney, but I suspect it was just a minor drop in quality for a couple of throw away shots. I also really liked how they worked the themes of songs like “Trust in Me” and “Bare Necessities” into the score of the movie. Even though this movie wasn’t going to turn into a full musical, it was nice that they found a way to incorporate the notable music from the first movie.
It was clear that Favreau was being pretty meticulous about the way that this movie came together. Not only with the visuals, but with things like casting and pulling different elements from the original movie. Idris Elba and Ben Kingsley really solidify the movie and create the overarching villain and guardian characters that the movie depends on to push its story forward. Then there are other voice actors who are used only a little, but wisely. Christopher Walken, Scarlett Johansson and Giancarlo Esposito are all used in important roles and they have voices that are recognizable enough to catch the attention of the older audience members. For example, the first time you hear Kaa, it’s kind of a fun moment when you realize it’s a female voice and who’s it is. Although, I have to admit, after Johansson’s performance in Her, hearing her disembodied voice in a kids movie took a little getting used to.
I felt like the stars of the movie where Neel Sethi as Mowgli and Bill Murray as Baloo. It can be challenging to expect a strong performance from a kid, especially in a movie like this where they can’t really see the things that they’re interacting with. I’m not sure what techniques they used to make this movie, but it worked. While Sethi’s performance isn’t likely going to win him an Oscar, it’s really on him to sell this movie and have some kind of chemistry with the fabricated characters. I think he more than pulls that off. Baloo was the thing that won me over about this movie. There were a couple of scenes early on that kept me on board, but when Baloo’s con-artist character really revealed itself, I knew I was on board with the movie. I think the line that did it was him saying, “You have no idea just how endangered of a species you are”.
Other than some rushed storytelling, I feel like the movie’s one big miss came from their updates to King Louie. They chose to make him an ominous King-Kong-like creature that was much more menacing than the animated film. That, in and of itself, wasn’t a big deal; what really threw me for a loop was hearing/seeing this giant monkey sing “I wanna walk like you” with Christopher Walken’s voice and motion capture. It’s one of those moments where you can really tell the movie was going for something big and different and it succeeded. There was even a nod to the fact that Walken was playing the character when Mowgli picks up a cowbell and rings it before Louie appears on screen. The scene definitely made an impression on me, it just felt a little too bizarre for my poor brain to handle during this movie.
Other than that, I thought that this was a great modernization of a classic Disney story. It feels like a great kid’s movie and it manages to use modern technology to make a movie that looks stern but not grim while still maintaining some elements of whimsy. The plot points are slightly different, but I found the idea of making the movie more about Mowgli’s quest to stay as part of the pack endearing. I’ll be honest, the Spartacus scene at the end where all the animals stand against Shere Khan got to me, just for a moment. It was just more evidence that I think this movie did actually succeed in creating a Disney Jungle Book that’s a good (albeit different) retelling of the tale.
The Jungle Book (2016)
- Movie does a good job tweaking the original story without feeling like it's ruining anything
- The CGI animals and their interaction with Mowgli actually plays in the movie, and that's hard to pull off.
- After a rough start, the emotional payoff in the movie actually lands.
- Does very little to divorce itself from the 1967 animated release
- If you loved the musical numbers from the animated movie, this is probably going to rub you the wrong way
- Unceremonious dispatching of several notable characters