THE JUNGLE BOOK reboots tale to dark adventure
I don’t remember when I saw The Jungle Book (1967) for the first time, but it was probably on the Wonderful World of Disney on a Sunday night or one of the theatrical re-releases in either 1978 or 1984. I do know we had storybooks and cassette tapes of the music, and Kaa was pretty frightening for a cartoon snake that sounded an awful lot like Winnie the Pooh. I remember Baloo and King Louie and the shy girl with the large brown eyes at the end when Mowgli rejoins the village.
Folks, this is not your mother’s JUNGLE BOOK.
First of all, the press screener I saw was in 3D, and while some like that sort of thing, for this movie, I don’t believe the experience was enhanced one frame. I would go as far as to say 3D gilds the lily. It’s a beautiful movie, and as long as you can see it on on a high-definition screen you’ll be wowed by the mix of live action and CGI. There is exactly one human in this movie, but every character feels vibrant and real. There are a few frenetic scenes of Mowgli running through the forest and climbing trees and swinging on vines, but the 3D effect was negligible to the overall effect.
Mowgli (newcomer, Neel Sethi, Diwali) is a human child raised by his adopted wolf mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o, Star Wars: Ep VII, 12 Years a Slave) and wolf pack, and living under the radar in the vast jungles of India. He lives by their rules with the caveat that he’s not to use his “tricks” – human problem solving skills and hand-made tools that highlight just how different he is. The other animals while not afraid of him, are wary of his presence. They know he will grow up to be a Man, and are keenly aware that nature will overrun nurture in time. Life is good until his life is mortally threatened by a large scarred tiger, Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba, Luther, Pacific Rim), as a bit of unfinished business in their shared history. In order to keep peace and to spare his wolf pack, self-appointed guardian, Bagheera, a black panther (Sir Ben Kinglsey, Suspect Zero, Stonehearst Asylum) offers to take Mowgli to the human village where hopefully everything will work out. It won’t because nothing should ever be that easy.
I’ll come right out and say it, Shere Khan is terrifying and the sheer level of menace and violence he perpetrates upon just about every animal around him should give parents of small children pause before plopping down money. It’s rated PG, not G, for a reason. Take your wee ones under six at the risk of a few nights of bed-wetting.
I want to get to the parts I liked the most – every single actor. Neel Sethi is brilliant as a feral child with the cunning of his jungle brethren and the compassion of an innocent. He’s completely relatable without being completely precious and that’s a tall order in child actors. He’s the right balance of curious and fearless, just a kid in a jungle he’s known all of his life having an adventure.
Bill Murray (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Lost in Translation) voices Baloo, a bear forever in need of a lackey, and Christopher Walken (The Prophecy, King of New York) makes … King Louie … (a Gigantopithecus, or extinct Great Ape) the EPITOME … of every New York Mobster boss that ever WAS. Where Baloo is the eternal smooth con, King Louie is as cool and as dangerous as the cliffs in the abandoned temple he occupies. Louie is what he thinks Man is – powerful and dangerous, as if owning one piece of destructive power can make him unstoppable. It’s lofty and it’s terrifying partly because it’s Christopher Walken as a giant ape and the very last thing you want is for that ape to get a hold of anything flammable. I could make a correlation between what Mowgli is and the person he could become personified in King Louie, but this is a kids’ movie and no one cares.
None of the voice actors are distracting (Jim Parsons, I’m looking at you) and each fits neatly inside the animal characters they’re portraying. The animators even give the characters a little facial personality of the actor, without totally anthropomorphizing them. Sure they talk, but they talk and move like the animals they are. King Louie has Walken’s expressive blue eyes, Baloo has the exasperated shrug of Bill Murray, Bagheera walks into a cave exactly the way you’d expect Sir Ben Kingsley to enter a room – but none are going to hop in a car or buy groceries. Everyone’s differences make them assets – and it’s an important lesson.
This movie was made by are professionals – Walt Disney Pictures, Jim Henson’s Creature Ship, and there’s even at thank you in the credits to Pixar – so despite the fact that nearly everything but Sethi is built in a computer, it’s hard to watch and not believe you can smell honey and warm grass in Baloo’s fur, or the stink of Shere Khan’s rage in the mats along his belly, or feel the rocks and dead limbs beneath Mowgli’s bare feet. This is a full immersive experience, and it’s glorious.
The Jungle Book is more faithful to the source material than the 1967 Disney version, with the exception of King Louie, who is wholly a Disney construct. This is however still a Disney reboot, so the three songs we all remember (”Trust in Me”, “Bare Necessities”, and “I Wan’na Be Like You”), are there and you’ll boogie in your seat.
I have no shame. My movie companion said that some kids’ movies are made for adults but toned down so children can enjoy them (The Incredibles had a very adult theme), but The Jungle Book is the opposite. This is a classic children’s story that while dark in places, is enjoyable for the whole family.