I have no nostalgia for The Jungle Book. Until a few weeks ago, I’d never seen the original animated film. I hadn’t read any of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book stories either. I like to think this gave me a unique perspective. There wasn’t going to be any candy colored nostalgia glasses over my eyes. Though this isn’t to say I was completely unfamiliar with the material. I did explore some of the Jungle Book universe or “Balooverse”—as I like to call it—before seeing Jon Favreau take the helm, but otherwise I was a stranger in a strange land. I wonder if I’m the first person to reference Iron Maiden in a Jungle Book review?
To begin my journey, I read two or three of Kipling’s original stories. I say “stories” because I wasn’t aware The Jungle Book was a collection of short stories and not a novel. Published over 120 years ago, I was surprised how well his work held up. The characters are just as detailed and well defined as their exotic environment, and Kipling’s prose has a classical flavor without being confusing or pretentious. The only thing it lacked was humor, which is what Walt Disney’s 1967 adaptation was all about.
The day before I watched Favreau’s Jungle Book I watched the original classic film. You better believe that’s sarcastic italicizing. Aside from the music and animation, I disliked the film. Kipling’s Jungle Book was smart, stoic storytelling and Disney turned into a goofy sing-a-long mess. Yet somehow it’s boring too. The worst is the film progresses at a snail’s pace. We don’t even meet Shere Khan until almost forty minutes in. The marching elephants made me laugh once, but that doesn’t mean they need twenty minutes of screen time. And don’t even get me started about the pack of vultures with Beatles’ accents. They have accents and mop tops… That’s the joke.
Now we come to the new film and I’m delighted to say it finds the mid ground. Favreau’s Jungle Book captures both the classic feel and defined characters of Kipling’s work, while not going too bananas in the funny bone department. The story for the most part follows Kipling short story “Mowgli’s Brothers.” Mowgli is raised by wolves, mentored by a wise panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and is threatened to leave the jungle by a scary tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba). And bless their hearts for not dragging anything out and getting rid of those damn marching elephants and Liverpudlian vultures.
Let’s talk about the characters. Mowgli is played by relative newcomer Neel Sethi. I’d heard going in that Sethi’s performance was weak, but I was content. There’s a couple awkward deliveries and I think a big part of this was the way in which the film was made. This kid was basically by himself, in front of dozens of crew members, in a studio surrounded by nothing but big blue turf. At least this is what I’ve heard. Naturally, some of his interactions are going to feel awkward. He gets a couple laughs though and they could have done much worse, so I give him a pass. Plus, he’s like 12. What am I going to knock down a 12-year-old?
Villain Shere Khan has finally been given a legitimate reason to hate humans, something he lacked in the original movie and the literature. I like this decision, though it does seem awfully convenient that Mowgli’s father is the reason he hates man. Still, Shere Khan is scary and intimidating, so he’s good enough for me. I hope he goes on to scare future generations for many years to come.
Bagheera has probably been the most consistent character among all the adaptations. This film is no exception. He is wise and disciplined and played by the very wise and disciplined Ben Kingsley. Think of him as Mowgli’s Obi Wan. He’s never been particularly interesting, but his compassion towards Mowgli at least makes him likable. I think it’s a wasted opportunity that neither Disney adaptations have used Bagheera’s origin from Kipling’s work. That being that he was once a caged animal in a traveling circus. How interesting would that have been? But nah, they got to make room for a “Bare Necessities” montage.
Speaking of “Bare Necessities” let’s talk about Baloo. Perhaps the most difficult character to realize. In the original story, Baloo is a wise, old bear constantly stressing the “Laws of the Jungle.” If Bagheera is Obi Wan, Baloo is Yoda. In the animated version, he spends almost two minutes singing about how nice it is to scratch your back. In the new version, Baloo is lazier than ever, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Though I’d like to see him impart a little more wisdom, I do enjoy the “I’m a fat, lazy bum” approach, entirely befitting of Bill Murray. I don’t know how much he really teaches Mowgli but he’s good for comic relief.
Then there’s the rest. The wolves? Fine. The Scarlett Johanssen snake? Fine. Christopher Walken as a singing Gigantopithecus? Great. If there’s a standout moment in the film, it’s without a doubt King Louie’s monkey temple. How could the monkey temple not be the best part? This is where the effects wow the most with Louie’s immense size in such a detailed setting. And who doesn’t love to hear Christopher Walken sing in the most Christopher Walken-y way possible? I Love it.
The animation? It’s amazing. There’s only been a handful of films to sell me on CGI animal characters and I’m glad to say this one joins the ranks. Effects wise, this is a landmark film. I wouldn’t mind seeing more CGI animal films after this. Super realistic Winnie the Pooh, anyone? It’s just a shame the effects can’t make up for the lean plot.
There’s been this weird trend lately of Disney remaking all of their classic films; Snow White and the Huntsman, Maleficent, Cinderella, this, a Beauty and the Beast film in 2017. No doubt it’s a big cash grab, but it does intrigue me. Not so much remakes of Disney’s 90s classics, but remakes of older films (pre 90s). I think some of the older Disney films aren’t quite as good as people like to remember. And considering most Disney films were adaptations to begin with, I see no harm in doing new versions with better stars and better effects. This is why I’m looking forward to the new Pete’s Dragon from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints writer/director David Lowery. So long crappy hand drawn snaggletooth dragon, hello super realistic CGI dragon. Also, Robert Redford. But only time will tell if these remakes are worth our time, or send us running to the hills. I wonder if I’m the first person to reference Iron Maiden twice in a Jungle Book review?