By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
Disney‘s live-action update to The Jungle Book shares a few visual and narrative similarities with its 1967 counterpart. While it’s a fun nod, I thought the nostalgia was unneeded. In what I enjoyed was a look at a darker, if not more violent, road to adulthood for a child found in the woods. A few scenes will most likely frighten toddlers but for youths, they may handle the bloodshed better. In the animal kingdom, these beasts have to scrounge for their meals and in this version, part of the tale is about the survival of the fittest.
Part of why I love this world is because of Tale Spin . This Disney Afternoon cartoon used characters from this work, introduced new ones (Don Carnage is a hoot) and placed the irrepressible Baloo the Bear (voiced by Phil Harris in the ’67 film, Ed Gilbert in the ‘toon and Bill Murray in this live-action film) in the lead role. Murray nails the adorability factor easily. While there’s no denying Gilbert was following in Harris’ footsteps for tonality and characterization, the generational factor is key to defining which version is going to be the most loved.
Jon Favreau‘s idea of putting each performer likeness into their animal counterpart is a surreal concept that works. It’s more visible on the eyes than facial structures. I can see it as Murray voices the lazy bear. As the panther Bagheera, Ben Kingsley is nicely matched and the orangutan Louie, Christopher Walken is the ideal choice. Although, I’m left scratching my head at the decision to make him King Kong sized. Perhaps that’s written in Rudyard Kipling‘s original works, but I haven’t read them in a long time. My memory is fuzzy. I loved Idris Elba‘s rapt control as the menacing Shere Kahn and if only there were more characters to stand out. I think Angelina Jolie would have made for a better Kaa the snake though Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha was okay. She did a better job at playing the memorable Maz Kanata in The Force Awakens.
The tale is mostly about a man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) coming of age in an animalistic society. Their civilization is different than in early homonids. The subtext is worth analyzing and because of what “man” can do to nature, this boy’s resourcefulness as a human is feared. The lessons he’s supposed to learn about being part of a unit are not as dominant in Favreau’s tale. They are buried in moments of the boy’s struggle to exist in a world through innovation. He’s told to behave like a beast more than a man. Despite being told to act like a wolf, his natural instincts to use objects as utensils is feared. It’s funny to note that in India, the monkeys are not accepted amongst the animal kingdom. Part of this world fear the “red flower” (fire). Civilization arose out of discovery in how to harvest and change the land. That’s why the elephants are highly respected. In the Australian Aboriginal’s view of the world, each type of creature contributed to the shaping of the land. In the Kipling’s world (and nicely represented in this 2016 film), the elephants are the most revered mammal of them all; they shaped most of the land.
To earn an elephant’s respect is important, and this fact is key to finding a deeper meaning to this work over the special effects which renders a portion of this world through a computer. The illusion is almost perfect. Weta Workshop and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop created most of the effects required for Sethi to react to. I suspect some puppetry was used, but aside from that, actors in motion capture suits were used. In less dangerous moments on the set, maybe some real animals were brought in. I can’t give praise to a movie that’s totally digital. Some practical effects are needed to give a film a sense of realism instead of green-screen moments — to which I noticed a few (especially when he’s taken to see King Louie) were off. To hear that most of this movie was filmed in a studio made me wonder how much of this film was real.
Favreau certainly has a love for the material, but he seems to have a tough time making this film unique instead of a call back to the animated version. He inserts two musical moments which adds nothing to the passion of the material and there is a familiar looking waterfall which I recall presented before. One rewatch of the animated version only confirmed what I thought. Instead of offering the older generation a fond memory, he should have gone for a different palette. I get the sense that he crafted this new Jungle Book for Generation Z to enjoy. Millennials will enjoy this film too, but some Gen X’ers may stick to what they loved from the classic than this update. For myself, I’m cueing up a marathon of Tale Spin (I have them all on DVD) to get a blast of what I enjoyed growing up to. In what I liked about this television version is that Kip Cloudkicker is an anthropomorphized version of Mowgli. Both were introduced to their respective worlds as outcasts, and in what’s amusing is in the fact they get accepted by a charming bear who can’t help but call the boy, “Little Britches.”
3½ Stars out of 5