Disney has adapted Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book to the big screen a few times now, the most prominent of which is the 1967 original animated classic. And though I can’t comment on how accurate that adaptation is to the book of the same the name (as I’ve never read Kipling’s stories), Disney has taken its cue from its recent hit, Cinderella, and updated the nearly 50 year-old film into a live-action doppelgänger. But can a movie, which I vaguely remember except for the earworm that is “The Bear Necessities”, find an audience by simply rehashing a story Disney created rather than returning to the story’s roots and discovering something new? As evidenced by the massive hundred-million debut weekend, the answer is a resounding, yes, not just because the majority of special effects look amazing, but because the story does, in fact, get a slight upgrade, giving more meaning to the jungle.
By now, we should all know the basics: after being abandoned in the Indian jungle as an infant, Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) is rescued by Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), a black panther that entrusts the man-cub’s protection to a pack of wolves, led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). The only animal to see danger in the man-cub’s presence in the jungle is Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a menacing tiger that wants Mowgli dead. So now, Bagheera must attempt to return Mowgli to his rightful place in the world before Shere Khan can get his claws into him. Misadventures ensue.
But this version of The Jungle Book is much more than that. As a writer himself, Jon Favreau knows how to craft a story as well as make a film (he is, after all, the man who started the Marvel cinema juggernaut with Iron Man). He takes the source material and gives it purpose, mostly behind the motivations of Shere Khan. Rather than simply being some ominous force that we only hear about, Favreau’s Shere Khan becomes a force to be reckoned with — a face of fear. We are given ample opportunity to see why he is so dangerous. In one key scene that helps set the movie in motion, all of the animals of the jungle have united under a truce to share in the last remnants of water during a drought. Hunter and prey, under the law of the jungle, have agreed to end all conflicts for the betterment of all life. It’s here we first meet Shere Khan and his low, threatening growl, letting all of the animals know that when the rains return and the truce officially ends, he will kill everyone that stands in his way of ending Mowgli’s life once and for all.
From what I remember of the original, Shere Khan was never given much of a reason to hate the young man cub except for him being a man. That hatred still bleeds over into this new version, but Favreau adds depth to that malice by connecting Shere Khan with the death of Mowgli’s father and his fear over the humans ability to control fire, known to the animals as the “red flower”. The red flower also gives more purpose to the orangutan, King Louie (Christopher Walken), who wants Mowgli to show him how to possess its power so that he may rule the jungle on a much grander scale. Unfortunately, this part of the story isn’t explored near enough. Not only would having King Louie in a more prominent role give more meaning to his part in the film, it would have enhanced Shere Khan’s fear of Mowgli in an organic way. After all, if King Louie got his hands on the man-cub (and thus, the red flower), all of the animals would be in much bigger trouble.
One major highlight of the film once again comes in the form of the big gentle bear, Baloo. As voiced by Bill Murray, Baloo brings much needed levity to the film. The moment he enters the picture (and convinces Mowgli to knock some honeycomb off the top of a large cliff), the movie blossoms into so much more than a simple reboot. It almost helps make up for the lack of expertise and skill that Sethi brings to the role of Mowgli. Yes, the actor looks like the character from the cartoon, however, there were more times than not that I cringed at the actor’s performance. That’s not to say he didn’t have his moments. When he faces Shere Khan in the last stand, the gravitas of all Mowgli’s experiences and trials is captured in his stoic stature, but up until that point, a lot of his line readings were left wanting. As is Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the giant boa constrictor that hypnotizes Mowgli into submission. I mean with Favreau’s favorite go-to actress, Johansson, behind the voice, Kaa is given a slick, sexy appeal, but as in the original, there just isn’t any purpose to the character, other than showing how dangerous the jungle can be. But we already know that with Shere Khan and King Louie. So tell me again… what is Kaa’s purpose in all of this?
Luckily, the voice cast is so on point, all of those minor squabbles can be forgiven. Add in some stellar special effects (some of which, I must admit, may have been able to simmer in the VFX cooker just a little longer), and Disney’s newest classic upgrade does everything it needs to do to introduce this story to a new generation of fans; a feel-good getaway that’s better than its predecessor, giving parents a fun escape for the entire family. And isn’t that what Disney is all about?
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include The Huntsman: Winter’s War and Elvis & Nixon. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.