November 20, 2017

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Mowgli, Mischief, and Music | “The Jungle Book” Movie Review

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Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) and Bagheera (voice of Ben Kingsley)  in The Jungle Book (All photos: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) and Bagheera (voice of Ben Kingsley) in The Jungle Book (All photos: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Bagheera the panther bares his fangs, and Shere Khan the hulking Bengal tiger is out for blood. In other words, Disney’s new reiteration of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 classic returns to the murky and mysterious Indian jungle, where the circle of life is quite vicious and in keeping with Kipling’s tone. A defenseless, barefoot boy is a potential meal for pythons, tigers, and bears—well, not the brown bear Baloo, who would rather cuddle than kill.

In this way, the new version departs from the studio’s lighter, more comic relief‒ridden animated frolic in the foliage (1967). What was earlier portrayed as a romp now often gives way to the sinister; the sense of danger cuts the cuteness factor in half. In fact, the movie out-brutalizes the book in one way, by killing off a major character.

Still, in terms of the story’s outline, the new adaptation is more faithful to 1960s Disney than Kipling’s clash vs. coexistence between man and animal, in which an infant has been saved from the jaws of Shere Khan and raised by a pack of wolves. Now a boy, the mop-headed “man-cub” Mowgli (a game Neel Sethi) learns the laws of the jungle (the strength of the wolf is the pack, and the strength of the pack is the wolf) and to steer clear of the rampaging tiger.

What the new film has accurately captured from the book are the fast pace and the adrenaline of the boy’s exploits. Sure enough, the camera bounces around, following Mowgli as he leaps and runs like a pint-size Tarzan. The book’s original cinematic text almost serves as a storyboard, as it describes Mowgli swinging limb by limb at the top of a canopy of trees, and director Jon Favreau follows suit.

Additionally, his film sometimes freely borrows, scene by scene, encounters and imagery from the Jungle Book 1967, most memorably when Baloo floats on his back, drifting down a river, with Mowgli resting on the bear’s cushy belly. Unlike most book-to-screen adaptations, the script doesn’t rely too much on action sequences, although the thunderous, over-the-top destruction of the City of Monkeys (the ruins of a majestic Hindu temple) is straight out of Peter Jackson’s bloated take on The Hobbit.

More important, the new movie affirms the bonds among Bagheera and Baloo and Mowgli, who is still learning the ropes, err, vines, of jungle life from his mentors. What might be more surprising to those who haven’t read the book is how unguarded and sentimental Kipling’s two predators-turned-parents are toward the boy. If they are stand-ins for a certain class of humans, they certainly are not of the British stiff upper lip species. Though lovingly rendered, the relationships in the 2016 version are less touchy-feely.

Mowgli and King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken)

Mowgli and King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken)

Favreau’s film also repurposes the best elements of the 49-year-old film: its tunes. About midway through, the slithery, undulating song “Trust in Me” is first heard, and it’s crooned during the closing credits by a whiskey-voiced Scarlett Johansson, who voices the python, Kaa. Baloo breaks into patter for the “Bare Necessities” and King Louie, the ruler of the monkeys takes on “I Wan’na Be Like You.”

Despite the rambunctious antics of the cartoon characters, there is a touch of the melancholia toward end of the animated film: Mowgli, on his own, returns to living with man, lured into the village by the pretty girl he espies fetching water. Kipling also hints here and there that change is inevitable; Mowgli won’t grow up and stay in the jungle forever. Favreau’s wild urchin, though, stays away from such troubling thoughts.

Advances in technology made it possible for the filmmakers to give this remake such a realistic sheen in a paradisiacal setting, from the fluffy capuchin monkeys to the python’s glistening scales—all made in a Los Angeles warehouse. For the most part, the computed-generated critters appear so lifelike that it seems natural that they would converse in English.

Despite their similarities, the two versions are not interchangeable. The cast gives it a different kind of sass from the 1967 film (and not to mention two other film versions, the last one made by Disney in 1994). Bill Murray, voicing Baloo, becomes a snarkastic observer, and the King Kong–size King Louie rules his turf by way of Queens, enlivened by Christopher Walken and now more low-level gangster than king of the jungle. Ben Kingsley and Idris Elba suavely purr as Bagheera and Shere Khan, respectively.

With its runaway pace, the movie’s a natural tie-in to the book and will appeal to readers and to those who fondly remember the earlier animated antics. It sticks to the middle of the road, with a dash of danger from the novel and the jaunty feel-good vibe from the Sixties.

Directed by Jon Favreau
105 min.
Rated PG (not too scary)

Kent Turner About Kent Turner

Kent Turner (kturner@mediasourceinc.com) edits SLJ's DVD reviews and is the editor of Film-Forward.com

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