If we use the number of adaptions as a metric for affection, then Disney really loves The Jungle Book. There is of course, their 1967 animated classic, which you and I and everyone else born within the last 60 years have seen over and over again to the point of it being permanently imprinted in our brains; there were two separate remakes produced by the studio in the 90s, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1994) and The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story (1998); there were also two separate Disney-produced television series in the 90s, TaleSpin and Jungle Cubs, that featured characters from the 1967 animated version; and then Disney came full circle and made a straight-up sequel to their 1967 animated film, The Jungle Book 2 in 2003. And now, in the era of retreads and reboots, comes the inevitable big budget, special-effects-driven remake frenzy– 2016’s The Jungle Book.
Not only is this latest version a further indication that Disney likes to periodically return to the well when it comes to this story (or at least their version of it); this is also part of a more recent trend of Disney producing live action revisits of some of their classic material. This pattern can be seen with the likes of 2015’s Cinderella; 2014’s Maleficent; and 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. As long as I’m on the subject, this path is set to continue later this year with a remake of Pete’s Dragon; and of course, this is all part of a larger pattern of Disney’s current financial strategy, which is to milk everything they can from already popular properties. Hence why they are making new Star Wars films and continuing with their Marvel films; and why we’re getting a Finding Dory movie this summer.
But enough with all that. Let’s focus on The Jungle Book. The film opens much the way the 1967 version did, with a slow pan into the jungle to gradually immerse us into this world; it even features some of the same score as the 1967 version, which is telling of the overall approach for this movie. Disney is more or less banking on the idea that general audiences have already seen its cartoon version of this movie and will go to this one out of nostalgia; and so it’s not so much intending to reinvent the wheel here as it is just trying to make a handful of things feel fresher and/or newer to justify the price of admission.
With that in mind, I’d say about 3/4th of this movie–basically everything up until the last act– plays out more or less the way the animated version did. We are again introduced to the man-cub, Mowgli (Neel Sethi), who is found by the noble panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and raised by wolves. Again, he is forced to leave due to the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) and winds up running into the lazy but lovable bear Baloo (Bill Murray), the sinister python Kaa (Scarlett Johansen), and the ambitious ape King Louie (Christopher Walken). Granted, some of these events happen in slightly different order than in the animated version, there are a few more action scenes (because every story needs more excitement), and there are a few moments that bare a stronger resemblance to Rudyard Kipling’s original works*; but, by and large, this is pretty recognizable as the story everyone remembers from the cartoon version. Even some of the songs are back. This isn’t a full scale musical, but Baloo and Mowgli still sing “Bear Necessities”; King Louie still sings about how he wants to be like Mowgli; and an instrumental of Kaa’s “Trust in Me,” plays during the snake’s big scene.
Admittedly, there are a few, more noteworthy, differences in this part of the film. Most of these lie in the depiction of some of the characters. Granted nobody shown in the movie is portrayed drastically different than how they were back in 1967; but there are some distinctions worth mentioning. For example, King Louie is much angrier and more menacing here than he was in the old days; he’s also been upgraded from an Orangutan to a Gigantopithecus–which is actually pretty cool and definitely adds to the fear factor. Conversely, Kaa’s role has been severely downgraded from the animated film. The snake only has one scene in the entire movie–which lasts for maybe three minutes tops–and is then forgotten about, never to be seen again. It’s frustrating for me, personally, since Kaa was always my favorite character from the cartoon. This also marks the second film released this year in which Scarlett Johansen has received top billing despite only appearing in a cameo capacity, the other being Hail, Caesar! This was a lost opportunity here, in my opinion. Maybe there’s an extended cut that has more Kaa in it; we’ll have to wait and see.
There’s also this new bit they add to Mowgli’s character about his clever “tricks,” i.e., his tool usage. Over the course of the movie, he MacGyver’s up quite a few clever contraptions, some of which would baffle structural engineers. Goofy as it is though, I like the idea of the use of tools being the thing that–to the extent and variety in which it is used–separates man from the animals. It’s a nice touch.
The truly significant difference in characterization, though, is in the portrayal of Shere Khan. Whereas the animated Shere Khan was a fierce but classy villain–with a calm disposition and sense of dignity; this interpretation is much meaner and barbaric, a bit closer, actually, to how Shere Khan was in Rudyard Kipling’s original works. This Shere Khan kills to get what he wants and is much more overbearing and tyrannical. It makes sense for this interpretation; but, that said, the character loses a lot of the charm that I appreciated from the original film. Also, while this potentially violates my policy of not discussing my politics in my reviews, I have to ask, did they really have to make the tiger so evil in this movie? I know Shere Khan is the villain, there’s no getting around that; but tigers are also an endangered species. There are only a few thousand of them left in the world, and they really don’t need any further reason for people to have bad feelings for them. Sorry, but it’s just ecologically irresponsible to depict a tiger like this in 2016. If Disney has any sense of moral obligation, they’ll donate some of the money they make from this towards tiger conservation.
Overall I’d say that these first 3/4ths of the movie are okay. It’s decently entertaining for what it is; the action is alright; the special effects are pretty seamless; and there were some moments that did have me grinning a little bit, so that’s worth something. In particular, I would like to acknowledge that the voice acting is very good. Ben Kingsley is great as Bagheera and Bill Murray is ideal as Baloo; and Christopher Walken manages to sell his version of King Louie, mostly by just being himself**. The child actor playing Mowgli, Neel Sethi, isn’t amazing (the kid who voiced the character in the animated version was much better and way more emotive); but you can tell he’s trying, and he certainly looks the part, so I’ll give him a pass.
Where this movie fumbles is in the final quarter, which entails the biggest differences for this film compared to other versions; and very disappointing ones at that. It starts out with Mowgli accidentally starting a forest fire which sends all of the jungle into panic. This could have been a potentially powerful way of adding complicated morality and themes on the presence of man in the wild; but Mowgli is never held responsible for this the way he should be, which makes absolutely no sense given that it is repeatedly stated how much these animals hate fire. This was another missed opportunity in my opinion. Next, Mowgli proceeds to face off against Shere Khan in a weird, Die Hard– meets-The Lion King finale that left me shaking my head in frustration. It’s neither like the animated version nor the original book; it smacks of a studio mandate to try to have a more explosive climax; and it just seems unnecessary here. Frankly, I wish they had gone for something more subtle.
But by far the worst aspect about the ending is that Mowgli never winds up going back to man’s world. He just keeps hanging out with the wolves, Bagheera, and Baloo after Shere Khan is defeated, as though his life can indefinitely remain an all fun and games romp with the animals. It is a major theme in Rudyard Kipling’s original works that Mowgli can not stay in the jungle forever; eventually, he does have to return to the world of man. And while it is delivered in a different manner and context in the animated-version, it’s still present there, and it gives that version more thematic strength. I know this isn’t the first version to nix this aspect of the story–and Disney clearly doesn’t mind changing things around in this narrative–but by removing this component you’ve essentially taken a parable on growing up and replaced it with an adolescent power fantasy about a boy playing Lord of the Jungle.
In other words, the movie squanders some much needed depth and what could have been a meaningful life lesson for younger viewers and instead takes a more carefree approach; and I don’t believe the trade off was worth it.
In as much as this movie is acceptable as two hours of entertainment, I’ll give it a pass. I’d say it’s worth seeing amongst what’s currently out in theaters. That said, too much is compromised thematically for me to give this film a strong approval, and I can’t help but ultimately view this remake as unnecessary. But as I said, Disney likes to periodically revisit this story, so maybe we’ll get another version from them in a few years that executes everything better***. ‘Til then, I shall remain preferring the animated version.
*Note: For simplicity sake, whenever I refer to Rudyard Kipling’s original works, this includes both The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book.
**They also give an amusing nod to his famous Saturday Night Live Cowbell Skit, which I appreciated.
***Plot twist, Warner Bros. is planning on doing just that.