The Jungle Book Review
The most notable of this weekend’s theatrical releases had to be Disney’s The Jungle Book, as it has a 95% Rotten Tomatoes rating and has seen tremendous box office success in its first weekend out. Jon Favreau's live action remake of the 1967 Disney animated original seemed to do so well because of the way it attracted not only children, but also viewers of all ages, to fill theater seats this weekend. So of course, being the Disney geek I am and having been intrigued by the visually stunning trailers, I made it a point to see this remake in all its three-dimensional glory.
I would strongly recommend this film to anyone anxious to see how they handled the remaking of a classic. I personally think they did a solid job of reworking the tale of an abandoned baby, Mowgli, who is found in the jungle by the noble panther Bagheera and raised by the jungle’s wolfpack as one of the cubs. As Jungle Book fans know, when Shere Khan, the evil, man-hating tiger, discovers the now grown Mowgli and orders his death, Bagheera and the wolfpack decide that delivering Mowgli back to the man-village he came from is the only way to save him. On his journey through the jungle, Mowgli meets a few notable characters who either aid or delay him, such as Kaa, the hypnotic python, King Louie, the leader of the apes, and the lovable, carefree bear Baloo.
To answer the obvious question first, I didn’t think that this remake ruined the Disney animated classic. Instead, I believe Disney did a wonderful job of retelling a classic plot, while introducing cutting-edge visuals and lots of action that older viewers can enjoy. My favorite part of this new Jungle Book had to be its cinematography and CGI efforts, as all the animals, talking as they may be, looked beautiful and extremely realistic. This is one of the first films that I can honestly say should be seen in 3D. I didn’t find it excessive or cheesy, like I usually do with lesser 3D films. Instead, the 3D experience allowed the entire film to have a beautiful layered effect that not only helped one focus on the main action without allowing the gorgeous backgrounds to distract, but it also was very stylistically reminiscent of a children’s pop up book. However, my favorite aspect of this movie was also something that diminished the trademark “Disney magic” and sense of wonderment that the animated classic is so famous for. The realism of the film was disenchanting, not so much in the visuals themselves, but with the characters and their respective voice actors.
My main qualm with this film was that it was hard to get past the big name voice actors. Sometimes, when an animal was speaking, I was distracted because all I could think about was what huge actor each voice belonged to. This is most noticeable with the characters of Baloo and King Louie, who were very obviously voiced by Bill Murray and Christopher Walken. I think this was too obvious to have been a mistake and that Jon Favreau really just wanted his characters to be exactly like the real life celebrity voice actors. It almost seemed like Favreau wanted to make a movie featuring Walken and Murray being themselves and used the plot of The Jungle Book as an expensive way to make that movie happen. This, of course, is an extreme dramatization, but as these two characters stand out most in the movie, it becomes difficult to get back into the Disney magic. There’s just no getting around it when all of Baloo’s line are written in Murray’s grumpy, natural dialect. Furthermore, it was almost jarring how Walken-esque they made King Louie. Disney even wrote in trademark Walken phrases, like “it’s beautiful” and made references to moments in his acting career. For example, when Mowgli enters the abandoned temple, he picks up a rusted cowbell lying on the dirt floor, moments before King Louie and all his girth come into full view. Maybe this is just me, but I automatically assumed the symbolic placement of the cowbell was a direct reference to the iconic SNL “More Cowbell” skit. My other main issue with the film was its placement of the film’s famous songs, namely “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You”. The "Bare Necessities” scene wasn’t bad, with the tune coming in slowly over a montage and the actual singing done almost exactly like the original, as Mowgli and Baloo break into song while floating in the river. But King Louie’s attempt at a musical number was almost painful, with Christopher Walken speaking more than singing. The number is prefaced by some very scary footage of King Louie and his monkey clan, with the “I Wanna Be Like You” tune playing in the background. This was extremely confusing to me and I really felt that at this specific moment the tone of the visuals and the audio clashed. When the actual number began, it was a weird mix of terror and humor. Imagine a condo-sized ape (who, quite honestly, frightened me) half singing in Christopher Walken’s mock gangster voice. Maybe this is just my subconscious fear of monkeys coming out, but this scene just left me uncomfortable and laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. Overall, I think the movie would be better with most of the original songs included, or none at all. I felt that including two musical numbers in an otherwise very serious film was just a very strange and inconsistent artistic direction.
All the other actors did a wonderful job of making their characters come to life without detaching the viewer from the fantasy, most notably Ben Kingsley and Lupita Nyong’o. Even as a wolf mother, Nyong’o’s performances never ceases to make me cry. Even Scarlett Johansson’s brief appearance as the hypnotic snake Kaa was enchanting; the audio effect in her scene is extremely powerful, using extreme reverb and echo effects to make Johansson’s voice bounce around the theater, confusing not only Mowgli, but the audience as well. Also, the visual that went along with her scene and the description of Mowgli’s past was unbelievably gorgeous. The way the film describes fire, or “the red flower”, is beautifully introduced here with a smoldering animation that played with the film’s 3D effect. This film also does a wonderful job with taking Mowgli’s origin story to new depths, as it explains the baby’s arrival to the jungle with a detail that the original film lacks. Another thing I appreciated about the new Jungle Book was the way they made up for plot changes with references. Obviously the plot had to be slightly different once the decision to cut all but two musical numbers was made. However, Jon Favreau makes up for this with lots of obvious nods at original scenes, for example, the baby elephant character is still very much involved with Mowgli despite the lack of the elephant parade scene. Disney had an impressive way of hinting at the original narrative while still keeping this new version serious and emotional.
My final issue with The Jungle Book is the sloppy way they ended the film. Without leaving any spoilers, I can just say that Mowgli ends the film as this big hero, a title that I felt was not entirely deserved and definitely exaggerated. The resolution seems rushed and does not end with the appearance of the little village girl, like the original does, perhaps to leave room for a sequel. I understand this is also a children’s film and the “happy ending troupe” comes with the territory, but considering the detailed narrative in the rest of the film, the end fell flat for me and didn’t make me feel any of that Disney magic I was expecting. Also, I felt Neel Sethi’s performance as Mowgli felt very lukewarm. Of course, I am taking into consideration this is Sethi’s first onscreen role, which is impressive in itself. Throughout the film, with all the big name actors and brilliant consistent CGI, it was easy to lose track of Sethi’s main character. At times, Mowgli’s story feels more like the excuse to make a big budget spectacular, rather than the focus of the film.
All in all, I felt like Disney’s reboot of The Jungle Book was a visual masterpiece that really pushed the boundaries of the sometimes gimmicky 3D technology. However, the all-star casting and lack of emphasis on the story led to a shortage of heart and magic throughout the film. I would give this film a 7/10 because although I did not fall in love with it, this movie was certainly a subversive and engaging experience that I would still wholeheartedly recommend.