“The Jungle Book”
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
1 hour, 45 minutes
I must admit that I’ve never been a big “Jungle Book” fan. That’s not to say I didn’t like it, and I’m speaking of the 1967 Disney cartoon here, but I didn’t love it the way I did films like Disney’s similarly animal populated “Robin Hood,” “The Fox and the Hound,” or even “The Aristocats,” a movie I’m not sure I would try to defend today. The cartoon “Jungle Book” is fine and I liked Baloo, as all young boys did, and I thought how fun it would be to be Mowgli, running wild in the jungle. I have, however, felt very little urge to revisit it.
I bring this up because, in this case, I think a lack of nostalgia actually serves you well as a viewer. The new, “live action” “Jungle Book,” released to great fanfare this weekend, is at once much the same and very, very different from its animated counterpart.
Jon Favreau, director of this latest film, as well as little known indies like “Iron Man,” “Elf” and the critically underseen “Chef,” has done something miraculous. The world of “The Jungle Book,” and everyone in it, aside from a young unknown actor named Neel Sethi, are digital creations, and spectacular ones at that. This form of film making isn’t unheard of — starting with “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” and including “Sin City,” among others, these movies do exist. But never before has this kind of intense detail been rendered on nearly every frame of the film. Much of the film is a marvel to behold and I only wish I’d seen it on a large IMAX screen, to more fully take in the amazing nature on display.
If you don’t know, “The Jungle Book” is an adaptation of the classic book of children’s tales by Rudyard Kipling, written in the 1890s. It details the adventures of Mowgli, a young boy raised by wolves under the watchful eye of the black panther Bagheera. When the presence of a human amongst the animals provokes the ire of Shere Kahn, a vicious tiger, it is decided that Mowgli must return to his own kind.
Easier said than done, however, and Mowgli proceeds to have a series of adventures, most notably one where he befriends a bear named Baloo. Mowgli, naturally, is reticent to go to the “man village” and wants to stay in the forest, but Shere Kahn’s vengeful crusade to kill the “man cub” cannot be ignored. How it will turn out is anybody’s guess, but having seen a children’s film before at least once or twice, I’m not holding my breath betting on the tiger.
I have to say I really enjoyed “The Jungle Book,” although I got into an argument with a friend of mine over it just this evening. He had some major problems with the film, some of which were justified and some of which I think stem from a true love of the original cartoon. I found this new film funny, charming, and visually incredible. Yes, it is, in a sense, darker, a fact I think is inevitable simply because the live action look makes the danger feel more immediate and possible.
But a little darker is fine. I especially liked the scene with Kaa, the constrictor that nearly has Mowgli for lunch, all the while filling in needed backstory and exposition. Kaa, voiced by Scarlett Johannson, is silky smooth and dangerous, where the original Kaa was more than a little silly. Her song, “Trust in Me” is excellent and creepy, and I’m sorry they didn’t let it play during the regular part of the film as opposed to over the credits.
Speaking of music, the film has fewer songs than the original, though they have preserved “Bare Necessities” and, in one of the movies only missteps, “I Wanna be Like You,” sung by Christopher Walken as the giant menacing Orangutan.
The King Louis scene is visually tense, but narratively confusing and the presence of Walken serves to take you out of the scene. At first he’s frightening, and at nearly King Kong size, rightly so. Soon however, the giant ape begins singing “Ooo Ooo Ooooo, I wanna be like you-oo-ooooo,” the tone they’d set previously and the scattin’ and be-boppin’ King Louis of the musical number just don’t match.
Other than that, however, I was very pleased with “Jungle Book,” as were my 6- and 8-year-olds. It’s exciting, heartwarming, stunning to look at, and strays from the cartoon in enough fundamental ways to be able recommend this as a new and unique experience. Veteran actors Ben Kingsley and Bill Murray join more recent stars such as Johannson and Idris Elba as the dark-hearted Shere Kahn. One of my favorite parts were the small animal cameos, including a few bittersweet lines from Gary Shandling as a porcupine.
Go out and see “The Jungle Book.” Go join the crowds. Like it or loathe it, I guarantee it’ll be something you’ve never seen before.
“The Jungle Book” is rated PG for jungle violence and tension.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.