‘The Jungle Book’ is an incredibly heartfelt, well-written, jaw-droppingly gorgeous, sometimes magical redundancy

May I start off again with another brief, personal Harry Knowles-esque aside?

Yes?

Why thank you, good sir or madam.

I love Disney’s 1967 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” Like a lot. Like a whole lot.

It’s a not a movie I revisit all that much, but’s it ranks in the top 10 in terms of movies that influenced the way I watch and talk about cinema, maybe because, in many ways, it represents a lot firsts for me.

It’s the first movie I remember watching again and again.

It’s the first movie I remember bonding with another person over. That person being my dad, who is also an avid fan of the movie.

It’s the first movie I remember actually remember noticing things like character and story.

It’s the first movie I remember comparing to the source material (mainly “Mowgli’s Brothers,” but there are quite a few stories included in Kipling’s collections from which the movie draws inspiration), with my grandmother of course.

The list goes on. Now, I’m not trying to paint myself as some sort of child prodigy of film analysis.

All that being said, the fact that Disney was taking another crack at this story was never a concern for me. A lot people bemoan remakes, reboots or what-have-you, and to some extent they are right to so. I know I do every so often. But The Jungle Book has never been some sort of sacred cow. It was never untouchable, in the same way other movies Disney is gunning to remake. Kipling’s stories land in the public domain and their have been COUNTLESS versions over the last few decades. There’s even another CGI-driven adaptation being headed by motion-capture god Andy Serkis over at Warner Brothers, due out in a year or two. Disney themselves released a sequel to their version a several years back…

Hell, this isn’t even the first time Disney has remade the film in live-action!

(Sidenote: that version is entertaining enough. It even co-stars a young Lena Headly aka Cersi Lannister! I think the main drawback for me is that it is kind of generic. It pulls for a more…realistic approach to the material i.e. non-talking animals, British/Indian colonial tensions, etc. In other words, while its an action adventure film, it leans more towards the somber, quasi-boring side of things rather than embrace the more fantastical elements others have utilized. Still, if you haven’t seen it, I’d fully recommend it.)

So no I was not at all surprised or even angry that Disney was taking another shot at the movie that, in a lot of ways, I hold very near and dear to my heart. In fact, once the talent the company had assembled to actually bring the story into the 21st Century was revealed, I found myself nearly frothing at the mouth with excitement.

I mean, let’s run down the list:

We’ve got Jon Favreau directing.

MPC and Weta Digital handling the visual effects.

Bill Pope on cinematography.

Bill FUCKING Murray as Baloo.

Ben Kingsley as Bagheera.

Idris Elba as Shere Khan.

Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha.

Scarlett Johansson as Kaa.

Giancarlo Esposito (Gus Fring!) as Akela.

Christopher Walken as King Louie.

If all of that doesn’t get you even remotely interested in seeing the movie, then I’m not sure what the hell you’re doing here.

Given all of that, I had very little doubts that this wouldn’t at least be a completely watchable experience. What was ultimately delivered was just that…AND THEN SOME.

While’s there’s nothing truly new about this movie, it still represents Disney at its best in that, at times, it captures what is just so damn magical about movies. It doesn’t surpass what the House of Mouse did back in the 60s, nor does it try to. Favreau and his crew are clearly fans of what came before. It’s evident in nearly every frame of this picture, and they go about forging a gorgeous, albeit familiar path.

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The plot:

“The man-cub Mowgli flees the jungle after a threat from the tiger Shere Khan. Guided by Bagheera the panther and the bear Baloo, Mowgli embarks on a journey of self-discovery, though he also meets creatures who don’t have his best interests at heart.” – IMDb.com

The review:

 Right off the bat, see this movie on the biggest fucking screen you have access to, then buckle up and get ready because you are about to get your socks knocked right the fuck off. I don’t mean to hyperbolize but we just may have a new bar in terms of cinematic special effects.

There are going to be moments in which you completely forget you’re not watching REAL animals in a REAL jungle. Of course, not everything is perfect but when these effects hit, they HIT. There is one moment in particular involving the wolves that I had to remind myself that I wasn’t watching actual wolves. Everything just clicked. The movements of the CG animals, every little tick and hair movement all snapped into place and I felt a chill go down by spine. Nothing special was happening yet at the same time EVERYTHING was. The closest damn thing to magic was taking place right in front of me.

I am utterly confounded they got such a strong performance from young Neel Sethi (who looks so close to animated Mowgli that it’s downright eerie at times) as the actor (who I assume has been in very little before this) is by himself through the entire movie, acting against nothing in an environment primarily created on a series of computers.

Favreau, a director who knows a thing or two about kid wish fulfillment with movies like Zathura and Cowboys and Aliens, is like a kid in a candy story here. This new film is the ULTIMATE zoo trip in which kids are not held back by glass and can actually interact with some of the world’s most dangerous animals without fear of attack…well, in some cases. Let’s not forget the homicidal tiger and hypnosis-loving snake, people.  It’s the film’s attention to detail that I found most striking. Any time a movie can make me forget that I’m watching a movie and stop looking for all the seams and strings goes down as pretty damn magical in my book. 

I think the best “new” element beyond the visuals (which are pretty damn substantial) is the new window through which we are presented the iconic characters as well as their respective casting.

As I listed before, the voice cast for this film is out of this world. I don’t know if credit lands on the shoulders of Favreau himself or some incredible casting agent. To whomever brought all these actors and actresses together for these roles: bravo. Bravo to the highest degree. Everyone fits their character like a well-worn glove; not an easy feat given Disney’s original animated version boasts some of the best voice acting in the entire medium.

The one choice that I’ve heard a lot of people be somewhat cold towards was Johansson’s as Kaa, who has traditionally been portrayed as a male character.

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Beyond backwards thinking, I’m 100% on board. Given that the character is iconic for his (now her) seductive hypnosis, I can think of no one better to bring new life to the role. Now there isn’t inherently sexual about the character; I mean we are talking about what ultimately amounts to a family film after all.  I love the choice if only for its ability to capitalize on Johansson’s voice, something I think we can all agree is utterly spellbinding.

Not to mention her cover of “Trust in Me,” which is everything.

Not sure about you but that was pretty much perfection, and it’s shame it didn’t find its way into the movie proper. She also allows for one of the film’s most inspired scenes revealing how Mowgli came to be in the jungle and his ties to Shere Kahn. I just wish there was more of her in the movie beyond just one scene.

Speaking of perfection by the way, how about Murray’s rendition of “Bare Necessities?”

It’s one thing to cover an utterly iconic song (without a doubt one of the most recognizable in the Disney canon) and it’s another to completely revitalize it. For the first time in years, “Bare Necessities” is stuck in my head and I bet the same goes for a slew of others as well.

I don’t think I need to dedicate too much time to how perfect Murray is for Baloo. It’s quite a feat to even reach the level Phil Harris reached in the 1967 version. To me, that’s the voice I hear in my whenever think care-free huckster, no matter what character it may be. So who better than Bill FUCKING Murray to give it a shot? It’s a role the man was destined to play and Serkis is going to have a hell of a time trying to measure up in his own version now that the figurative mike has been dropped.

In addition to the casting, I loved just how much depth was given to these well-worn characters. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a “grown-up” version of this classic story. The aforementioned 1994 version was pretty damn dark as well.

Let’s look at Shere Khan for example. He’s a villain, while utterly intimidating and badass, that has never had too much depth before. He hates man. Mowgli is a man. Therefore, he wants to kill Mowgli.  The thing that made him iconic was his cool demeanor. He was a cat who relished being bad. But underneath that you knew there was a fucking monster just waiting to burst out. Someone who would distract you with his laissez fair attitude, and while your guard was down, rip your throat out.

I’m happy that aspect of the character is still intact here as well as few extra dimensions, fleshing him out in a way that feeds into the larger themes of this adaptation.

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Here, Shere Khan is a malicious psychopath using his own past trauma to falsely justify his own appalling, homicidal behavior. It’s not darker, but it builds on what we know the character to be, giving him motivation; giving him dimension as well as the perpetual growl of Idris Elba (Fingers crossed we get that man as either A) James Bond or B) Batman, before it’s too late). 

And that’s just one example. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a “grown up” version of the story, or that it’s any darker than any adaptation that’s come before. It certainly explores more complex themes than others have. We get the Laws of the Jungle Kipling was so fond of as well as inter-species politics, i.e. the relationships between predators and prey, and the utilization of man’s technology or “tricks” for the benefit of nature.

We also get themes of man’s encroaching on nature, the destructive forces of nature as well as the loose definitions of what makes a family. (If there is a better argument for gay marriage in kids’ movie than Baloo and Bagheera, please point it out in the comments.) I was particularly touched by the last bit, especially during a scene in which Mowgli opts to leave his wolf family rather than continue to risk their safety really got to me.

The wolves really haven’t gotten much screen time in any of the earlier versions and I really liked how they were used here. It’s an empowering moment to not just adoptive parents, but the role of good parents as a whole.

On its environmentalist themes, the film never really forces it down your throat in the same way Fern Gully or Happy Feet did. It presents the problems a bit more complex way rather than simple Nature = Good, and Man = Bad that we get in environmentally conscious films. Any movie that treats its audience with respect rather than drool deposits that need everything sold to them in black and white terms deserves a little commendation. Between this and Zootopia, Disney is doing one hell of a job serving up complex, uneasy and current issues far and above the other standard kiddie fair.

Any real “problems” I had with the film can pretty well be surmised as nitpicks.

For example, I like that the songs were included. I really am. But when King Louie busts out into “I Wanna Be Like You” it kind of undermines the tension that was seemingly put forth beforehand. Christopher Walken’s iteration is established as “mob boss of the jungle;” someone with connections and someone intimidating…and having bust out in this silly song was a little jarring.

I was also a little lukewarm to the ending. No spoilers but it’s…different than the ending of the 1967 ending. It leaves room for future movies, which fair enough there are more stories to tell, but I liked the bow the original wrapped on its admittedly loose narrative.

Speaking of the narrative, the animated film was more of a series of scenes rather than a traditional, cohesive story. Sure, there was a driving story of Mowgli traveling back to his own “pack” as it where with the looming threat of Shere Khan ever present. This newest version follows something much more…expected. We have a beginning, middle and an end. This isn’t a problem really. It’s just different. It fits better than that utter abomination disguised as a movie, Alice in Wonderland. Kipling’s stories actually had a driving narrative and lend themselves to such better than Lewis Carrol’s Wonderland tales in many more ways than just one. I could go on about how much that movie sucks, particularly in the face of this one, but it’s time to wrap things up and I don’t want to keep you here all day. I’ll just leave this here for no reason whatsoever….

Urgh…I hate that movie…

Anyway, at the end of the day, The Jungle Book is a redundancy, HOWEVER it isn’t unnecessary and I think that is a critical distinction. In this instance, I don’t mean to use the term “redundancy” as a disparaging term. For all the bells and whistles the filmmakers brought to the table, this movie is the 1967 with a fresh coat of paint. It’s important to note that however that the same argument could be made for the earlier version. Kipling’s original stories have been adapted and re-adapted all of these decades for a reason. There is clearly a timeless quality to them and when placed in the rates hands. Luckily two of the times Disney’s been given have resulted in work that transcend past simple movie making, and into the realms in which are imaginations are allowed to soar. This is a film that rewards us for letting go of our disbelief and in doing so, captures what small magic movies can still deliver in these often cold and anxious times. 

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2 thoughts on “‘The Jungle Book’ is an incredibly heartfelt, well-written, jaw-droppingly gorgeous, sometimes magical redundancy

  1. Pingback: Sweet ’16: 25 of the best films from the worst year ever (that I actually saw) | Sharks with Laserbeams

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