The Jungle Book

Year: 2016

Director: Jon Favreau

Producer: Jon Favreau, Brigham Taylor

Starring: Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Neel Sethi

Cinematography: Bill Pope

Country: United States

Disney’s The Jungle Book is one of those rare movies that most people my age and older look back upon with nostalgia, remembering the way that the bright cartoons (still hand drawn in those days) and vivacious songs made them feel. They remember the fun interplay between the film’s hero human child Mowgli and his happy go lucky bear companion, Baloo and the enjoyment to be found in the (mostly) uplifting and childlike story.

I, however, was not one of these.

It wasn’t because I didn’t like the story or the idea, or that I was too young to understand it (in fact, given that the original cartoon was released in 1967 I was amongst the generation of Disney fans playing “catch up” when it came to the “Golden Era” of Disney cartoons), it was simply due to the fact that I, must to my embarrassment, had never seen it.

In a way, never having seen The Jungle Book in its original hand drawn technicolour beauty was a bonus when it came time for me to see Jon Favreau’s (of Iron Man fame) adaptation of the classic tale. I was able to go into the cinema with an open mind and fresh eyes and immerse myself in the amazing CGI home of Mowgli, a human child orphaned in the jungle and brought up by animals.

As so many people have commented these days, computer generated imagery (better known as CGI), is fast becoming part and parcel of the film making world. It allows filmmakers to create amazing landscapes, characters and situations that could never be possible in the real world. Unfortunately, with CGI fast taking over from the “old art” of real sets and make up, it’s very easy to get carried away and take the focus from the story — just take movies like The Phantom Menance if you want an example of just how bad it can go.

With a story drawn from both the previous cartoon adaptation and the original Rudyard Kipling source book, Jon Favreau skilfully creates a movie that develops its characters with a sense of realism that was missing from the original cartoon. Human child Mowgli, brought up by wolves and a wise panther (voiced by Ben Kingsley — a role that we can easily imagine him playing as the wise but short tempered grandfather), has come of age and is now being hunted by the physically and emotionally scarred tiger Shere Kahn, who has come to extract his revenge upon the race that hurt him so many years ago. Mowgli must escape the clutches and Shere Kahn and finally find out who he is really meant to be.

Disney’s 2016 The Jungle Book, combining live action from its main star Mowgli (played by Neel Sethi, an 11 year old boy making his feature film debut) with CGI sets, animals and effects, avoids these pitfalls by keeping the focus on its live human actor. The artificial animals and sets (with some of the best CGI I’ve ever seen — you’ll be hard pressed to find a more beautifully and convincingly animated wolf, thoughtful and mature panther or irreverent and loyal bear) are used to support the main character and develop his story, not to act as set pieces and spectacles themselves (although at times it’s hard not to get distracted by the beautiful scenery and creatures).

Voicing Mowgli’s companions are some of the most accomplished and famous actors around. Cleverly though, instead of using big names like Christopher Walken (in yet another strange but particularly relatable role that he has become known for) or Idris Elba (playing the role of the genuinely scary, calculating and evil tiger Shere Kahn) as simple draw cards to gain audiences and legitimacy, the voice actors perfectly suit their charges with animators creating animals that clearly draw inspiration from the physical and personality characteristics of their voice actors.

Despite having never seen the original screenplay, I was certainly aware of the songs that had made the original The Jungle Book cartoon famous — numbers like “Bear Necessities” and “I want to be like you” (even if I would be hard pressed to hum more than a few bars). Favreau’s The Jungle Book, however, whilst avoiding becoming yet another musical number, weaves these songs into the plot — either as part of a snake’s deadly plot to ensnare the unwitting Mowgli (a spoken “Trust in Me”) or as a bonding exercise between bear and child, floating lazily down the river (“Bear Necessities”). There is one pure musical number though, sung by the eccentric and slightly evil King Louie, sung in Christopher Walken’s hypnotising and slightly off key voice.

Unfortunately, it almost felt as though these musical numbers were used by Favreau to pander to the original generations who demanded that, without the songs, this could never be a legitimate adaptation. To me, the songs felt forced and out of place with the rest of the movie and didn’t really suit the adaptation. Better to use them as story telling devices where the words are changed and only spoken (like Kaa’s “Trust in Me”) instead of full blown musical numbers in a live action adventure movie. It almost felt like Favreau was juggling the film between child and adult audiences with occasional uneven results.

Disney’s 2016 The Jungle Book weaves happy and genuinely humorous sequences (like Baloo’s never ending quest for elusive honey), reverent and poignant lessons (the truce at the water hole for example), tear inducing encounters (the death of Mowgli’s father) and truly scary edge of the seat moments (towards the climax of the film, for fear of giving away the ending), leaving both young and old with a tear in their eye and a sense of hope for the future. It is a movie that encourages us to live and learn with its main characters, to believe in a sense of purpose and belonging no matter our colour, culture or creed, and to believe that no matter how different we might be, we share so much with our fellow man and beast.

Oh, and make sure you stay for the credits.

****1/2

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