The Jungle Book
US (2016) Dir. Jon Favreau
Having recently got round to viewing the celebrated 1967 animated version of Rudyard Kipling’s famous tale from Disney, it is time to take a look at their recent updated live action version from Hollywood. The story is largely the same as before, expanded at the expense of the popular musical numbers, adopting a darker tone commensurate with the natural veneer of a live action presentation.
As ever this is about Mowgli (Neel Sethi), an orphaned human boy raised by a pack of wolves after being found by the black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) in an Indian jungle. The evil tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) has a pathological hatred of mankind after being maimed by Mowgli’s father (Ritesh Rajan) with fire, and vows to kill Mowgli.
For his own safety and that of his wolf family, Mowgli volunteers to return to the village where the humans are, with Bagheera accompanying him. When Shere Khan ambushes them and inured Bagheera, Mowgli flees and ends up meeting sloth bear Baloo (Bill Murray) who take the lad under his wing and get him to the village safely.
In some ways calling this a live action films feels a little fraudulent as it 98% CGI, from the animals and the sets – only Mowgli, his father and a few other humans in one scene are real. But the quality of the animation is such that we never notice as the blend between the two mediums is seamless, which is the main appeal of the film for fans of the ‘67 animated version.
How this was achieved was to have Sethi run around on sound stages with the odd prop or obstacle to walk or climb over, with the now ubiquitous blue screen as a backdrop. The animals are often substituted by actors in blue body suits and animatronic puppets for Sethi to interact with for complete authenticity. Everything else was the product of a computer (well a whole bank of computers) and a lot of patience.
The result is an immersive hyperreal experience – although some of the animal’s mouth movements could have been smoother and less comical – but does it detract from the story and capture the audience’s attention purely through its visuals?
Actually, no. If anything the story is given more focus than in the ’67 version and is fleshed out emotionally and dramatically, the change in medium allowing the action aspect to take on an extra thrilling dynamic.
With an extra 30 plus minutes to work with than the prior film, the story is given room to breathe and unfold at a steady pace and not, like before, be crammed into the last ten minutes. Mowgli’s life with the wolves is expanded upon by showing the big brother relationship he has the younger cubs, his adoptive mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and Bagheera.
There are some added touches to the backstory of the vendetta of Shere Khan, while the suave charm of George Sanders’ characterisation replaced by a cold and calculating manipulation of the weak minded. At the risk of making an ill-advised metaphor, Sanders’ version was a real pussycat compared to this one.
Giving the film extra weight despite the inherent whimsy of talking animals is this leaning towards the dramatic, but there is still room for some humour, arriving in earnest with Baloo. The huge sloth bear saves Mowgli from being hypnotised by the seductive snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) then has him repay his debt by retrieving honey from the bees that have settled on the side of a cliff.
It seems as though just by having Bill Murray’s presence voicing Baloo that the mood gets lighter and there are some great interactions with some smaller animals when they witness Baloo up to his old tricks with Mowgli. While Phil Harris was an avuncular type character, Murray is more of a warm hearted Fagin with an arsenal of witty one liners for any occasion, but can get serious when necessary.
Because director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks were so beholden to the ’67 version as their inspiration and template, they brought back a character from it that wasn’t in Kipling’s book – King Louie. Voiced by Christopher Walken, Louie is now a giant malevolent Orangutan, a riff on Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now – a menacing corpulent beast, hidden in the shadows when Mowgli first encounters him.
As mentioned earlier the famous musical numbers are practically absent here, aside from the odd chorus here and there of Bare Necessities, Trust In Me and a revamped and much more sinister I Wanna Be Like You. Given the more serious nature of the film the latter example feels incongruous, especially come from such a tyrannical persona, while the others are more natural.
Where the film noticeably deviates from its predecessor – and this might be a spoiler – is the ending, pertaining to the message Kipling was trying to impart. In ‘67 it was suggested man and beast cannot co-exist forever and Mowgli’s rejoining the humans was inevitable – here he is embraced as one of the animals and his departure would result in much emotional upheaval for both parties.
Perhaps this was intentional for the obligatory Disney feel-good denouement whilst leaving the door open for the inevitable sequel. What will be interesting is where they will take the cast next, especially Mowgli as actor Neel Sethi will be a bit older, and kids grow up fast these days. In his debut role, Sethi does rather well, although his ability to emote has yet to reveal itself, but he handles the physicalities with gusto.
I know that I’ve mentioned the ’67 version of The Jungle Book a lot in this review but the best approach when viewing this film is to put it out of your mind. Even with such a looming shadow over it, this is overall a success on a visual and storytelling front and its genuine passion shines through.