Let’s talk about Disney everyone. Yeah, there are a lot of issues with the company, they’ve had a very spotty history and have done some remarkably awful things that they’re very ashamed of. Yeah, they have a pretty bad history when it comes to the treatment of female characters, and they often make the ultimate goal in a girl’s life to marry the blandest, most non-descriptive man, as long as he has money. There’s issues. But I kind of love them. I couldn’t give less of a crap about their live action stuff, but just like every other kid on the planet, I grew up with their animated films, and they were some of my first lessons in narrative and storytelling, because the type of fairy tales that they specialize in are so classic and archetypal, they can be pretty important. And yeah, they tend to be sappy, but I can use some sap sometimes. I’ve actually been planning on doing a series on this site where I go through all the animated features and talk about them, but I have enough on my plate at the moment, and have put that off for a bit. Maybe next year. But that’s neither here nor there. Disney! They’ve been doing something kind of odd. It started last year with their live-action remake of Cinderella, and seems to be a new thing their doing, since it feels like the last couple months we’ve gotten a ridiculous amount of announcements of more and more live-action remakes. And Cinderella was okay. It didn’t blow my mind or anything, but it was a good retelling of the classic tale, while doing some slighting different things with the story we all know. The visuals were great, and Cate Blanchett was a tremendous Lady Tremaine, but the overall opinion I had after watching that movie was that it was just pretty unnecessary. It didn’t do anything with the story, and just felt kind of pointless. We already have the animated Cinderella, do we really need a live-action one? Whenever remakes come up, I hear people justify them by saying things like “it’s telling the story for a new generation,” and usually just tells the same story with either color, or just an update in fashion. Which, while I personally find stupid, I get. Some people don’t like watching movies that weren’t made before they were born. Those people are stupid, but whatever, I get it. But not really with Disney movies. It just hasn’t clicked with me yet. And this weekend we got our next live-action remake, the Jungle Book, and while it still hasn’t sold me on the necessity of these movies, it was at least a better movie, that did something new with the story, pushed some technological boundaries, and just generally became a fascinating theater experience.
Now, the plot of the movie is pretty much exactly the same as the 1967 animated version. Which is to say, not really that similar to the Rudyard Kipling books, more a neutered hodgepodge of moments from the stories. We just see the adventures of Mowgli, a young Indian boy who was lost in the jungle at a young age, and raised by the animals. He lives with a pack of wolves, under the watchful eye of Bagheera the panther. Life is going well, until a drought happens, and the rest of the jungle put aside their issues to focus on surviving. And when the animals meet to drink water at one of the last watering holes, they come across a psychotic tiger named Shere Khan who has a real grudge against humans. And while he appreciates their drought truce, he makes it clear that when the drought is over, he’s going to kill Mowgli and any wolf that gets in his way. So when the rains inevitably come, Bagheera plans on taking Mowgli out of the jungle, and bringing him back to the man-village where he came from. And what follows is Mowgli’s adventures in the jungle, coming across the villainous python Kaa, some regal elephants, a crazy cult of monkeys led by the enormous King Louie, and the lovable burn-out old hippie Baloo the bear. He makes friends, learns lessons, and ultimately learns that his true strength is his human ingenuity, which is the very thing that makes him different. And in the end, he tries to save his animal family with the use of humanities greatest gift/weapon, fire, and ends up almost burning down the whole jungle. But the animals all rally together, and Mowgli is able to outsmart Shere Khan and defeat the villain, before returned to a happy life with his animal family.
So yeah, it’s the Jungle Book, not much to say. It’s essentially the exact same story as the animated movie. The same plot points, the same characterizations, and hell even two of the same songs awkwardly thrown in. But, much like Cinderella, the saving grace was the visuals. Now, I’ve never been a person to excuse a lackluster movie just because it looks pretty. I consider myself a movie buff, but I’ve never been a fan of “art film” which are little more than pretty scenes that don’t have a lot of meaning of substance behind them. At that point they aren’t narrative films, they’re demo reels of camera techniques. Like Avatar! Now, it’s easy to make fun of that stupid movie. People were obsessed with it when it came out, and I really never understood why. I saw it, and it was dreadful. One of the worst movie I’ve ever seen. It was pretty I guess, but it had abysmal writing, bad acting, and poor direction. It was little more than a feature-length video to test 3D televisions with. Pretty visuals are there to prop up a compelling story, not to be the sole factor for a movie to exist. And that’s really where the Jungle Book saves itself. Because yeah, it’s pretty, but so was Avatar. And that movie hasn’t aged well. No movie that relies on it’s digital effects will, because we advance at such a rate that in just a couple years the effects will no long look amazing, and all that will be left is a lackluster film, like Avatar. But not the Jungle Book. It had a serious leg-up in the plot department, because it’s a beloved story that still feels fun and adventurous. Who doesn’t like a crazy jungle adventure story? But it’s been done. The thing that this movie did so well was making small, but interesting changes to the story coupled with some remarkable casting.
So let’s talk about this cast. It’s killer. The kid who played Mowgli was alright. Not great. But hey, kid actors are rarely good, and when they’re literally only acting against green screens? Yeah, not going to blow out socks off, but he did a serviceable job. It’s the animals that blew me away. There were a couple roles that didn’t really do much, mainly due to their role in the plots. Scarlet Johansson was pretty nothing as Kaa, as was Giancarlo Esposito as Akela, but that was really more the movie’s fault than them. Lupita Nyong’o was good as Raksha, but the character doesn’t have much to do in the movie. But man was Ben Kingsley a great Bagheera, so regal and posh, but willing to kick ass for his family. And similarly Bill Murray was tremendous as Baloo. They changed the character a bit from the animated movie, who was basically just a beatnik. Here’s he’s kind of a burnt-out old hippie conman. Honestly I think the two working actors who would be best as Baloo would have been Bill Murray or Jeff Bridges, and Murray knocked it out of the park, being a tremendously likable and fun character. Then there’s good old Christopher Walken as King Louie. He was pretty great. They changed King Louie a bit to be this weird mob-boss whose obsessed with the power that fire can give him. I’ve seen multiple versions of this story, and read the books, and it wasn’t really until this performance that it really clicked for me how great it is that King Louie lives in an abandoned temple. Not only is it a place for humans, but it’s a seat of power where he can hold court. Plus the literally gave Walken a cowbell, which was stupid and wonderful. But the real powerhouse of the movie was Idris Elba as Shere Khan. Elba is amazing in any role he tries, and he was a great Shere Khan. He gave the villain some real menace, instead of the mincing old-Hollywood type villain that was in the animated movie. There was a brief moment when he first showed up that I thought Elba was kind of doing a British gangster voice for Khan, like a Guy Richie movie, which also would have been awesome, but instead he gives the character this quiet menace that worked tremendously well. Shere Khan was a scary bad guy, when he was yelling or whispering, and Elba was really the MVP of the movie.
The plot I described was pretty vague, but hey, it’s the plot of the Jungle Book, we all probably grew up on it. And while this adaptation hits most of the same plot points, it makes a couple changes that I really liked. First of all, the structure worked a little better for me. It was less aimless wandering. The animated version was very much Mowgli runs away, finds a problem, is saved by Bagheera, runs away, rinse and repeat. This one flowed a little better. It also trimmed some weird things that I never liked from the animated movie. The weird militaristic elephants were taken out, and replaced with like, god-like elephants that everyone worshiped. They also downplayed Kaa’s role, which is fine because that character always felt weird to me. The fight with Shere Khan was much more interesting in this movie too. Honestly, everything about Shere Khan was better in this version. Don’t get me wrong, George Sanders’ version is great, but in that he seemed to hate Mowgli for no reason, and was just hunting for sport. He was kind of a stand-in for English Imperials. Just a jerk who didn’t care about anything. But in this movie, Shere Khan kind of became Magneto. He believes in the laws of the jungle, but doesn’t trust man. Because all they do is ruin things. This Khan has been burned, literally, by man, and doesn’t trust them. And he basically orchestrates the entire plot to turn the rest of the jungle against Mowgli. And he’s almost right! Mowgli almost burns down the damn jungle, just like Shere Khan warns them. That was great. But the best part of the movie was the ending, which fixed the stupid ending of the animated movie. In that one, after all these trials and tribulations, Mowgli catches sight of a human girl and promptly ditches his friends and family, presumably to never see them again. But in this one, he sticks with them. This movie did a lot more to show that Mowgli’s true gift is his human ingenuity. The rest of the animals like to keep things the way they always have been, and they’re uncomfortable seeing Mowgli’s ingenuity. Because human ingenuity never does anything good for nature. But by the end Mowgli has learned the difference between good human creativity, and bad human creativity, and has found his true calling in the jungle. He’s not trying to live as a wolf, or a bear, of a monkey, he’s living as a man. He’s a new cog in the machine, and he’s going to help them.
The Jungle Book was written by Justin Marks, directed by Jon Favreau, and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, 2016.