While, like any child since the 1970s, I have seen the 1967 Disney’s The Jungle Book, it has been a fair number of years, and all that really stuck is “The Bare Necessities” and some chatter from Cub Scouts. But even without a deep bond with the most famous adaptation, the live-action redux seemed unnecessary from the trailers for one reason: its grimness. Check out the original trailer again, and feast yourself on that smorgasbord of animal scowling. Notably, it ends with Baloo lazily swimming down the river, and while it certainly has some unnecessary action and scare elements to it, it still has the same feel-good spirit in its veins as the animated version, putting a just-fresh-enough spin on the material to justify double-dipping.
The decision to go half-and-half with CGI and live-action pays off rather well, immediately distinguishing it visually from it predecessor, and with high-quality animation that only rarely betrays its true computerized nature. It’s still a bit off-putting the first time a panther opens its realistically rendered mouth and speaks, but its easy enough to get over. The voice cast is mostly excellent and occasionally eclectic; Bill Murray as Baloo the bear and Christopher Walken as King Louie the monkey have no reason to really work, but Murray’s amicability and laid-back delivery suit Baloo perfectly, and Walken’s disjoint mafioso delivery saves what’s otherwise the least essential part of the film. Scarlett Joahnsson’s Kaa appears only briefly, but re-affirms her as a surprisingly stunning vocal character actor, an inviting yet otherworldly presence. Idris Elba is fierce as Shere Khan, although his accent breaks through distractingly at times. While the film wisely decided not to be a musical, “The Bare Necessities” does make an appearance. While its not the show-stopper it was in the original, Murray’s laid-back approach suits the film perfectly. Less perfect is the in-film brief interlude of King Louie singing “I Wanna Be Like You”, which distracts and clashes tonally. But some of songs are re-done with the movie cast for the credits, showing that the cast would have been more than up to the challenge had they gone for a straighter remake.
While it is less of an issue than the trailers made it out to be, the new Jungle Book is still aimed at an older audience than the original (maybe 10 year olds instead of 5 year olds). It makes scary characters out of not only Shere Khan, but King Louie and Kaa. The characterizations work, but often end up devolving into action sequences the pile up to make the back half slightly overstuffed. While I would not want to deprive the world of Walken as King Louie, the sequence really could have been excised, particularly its action denouement. But Favreau brings some art to it all, staging some great shots of the beasts at his disposal (I’m a big fan of the scene where Shere Khan confronts the wolf pack). And as overused as the action tropes are, the message that being able to tie a knot makes you a worthy adversary to something with the sharpest claws is certainly one worth sharing with your local Cub Scouts.
The Jungle Book (2016)
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, and Neel Sethi
Rotten Tomatoes (94%)
Also, it should really be called The Jungle Movie, amirite?