Back in 1967 Disney released an animated version of Rudyard Kipling’s stories from The Jungle Book, which was also the last animated film to have the personal touch of Walt himself as he passed away in1966, and this is what the Disney Studios have tried to remake here today. Now in 1994 Disney did make a live action version of The Jungle Book, which was also pretty good and starred Jason Scott Lee, but this isn’t so much Disney doing another remake of the stories by Kipling but more of a remake of the animated version, only with a live action Mowgli and CGI everything else. This is all part of Disney’s current plan to make live action versions of all their classic animated films.
The original 1967 animated film took many elements from the Kipling stories but Walt Disney was not keen on the darker tone of the source material, so we got a much more upbeat movie with singing bears and dancing monkeys, but in this “live action” version director Jon Favreau had decided to adopt that darker tone found in the books. This will make the film a bit off putting for some parents as elements of this movie could scare the little ones. I had no problem with the tonal change, but I did have a problem with it being inconsistent. Making a gritty and dark fantasy world is all well and good, and I did like that Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is shown to be dirty and scarred from his life in the jungle, but then when we have him later helping Baloo (Bill Murray) steal honey or lazily drift down the river singing “The Bare Necessities” it’s a bit jarring.
The basic story structure is the same as the original, which is often the problem when adapting Kipling’s books as they are not what one would call “plot centric” as they are really just a series of episodic adventures in the jungle. The movie begins with us seeing Mowgli playing with his fellow wolf cubs and the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), but then drought strikes and all the animals gather at “Peace Rock” for a truce where eventually Shere Khan (Idris Elba) shows up to threaten Mowgli. Shere Khan really hates man, he has a burnt face because of an encounter with a fire wielding man, and he wants this man cub dead. We later learn that Shere Khan was the one who orphaned Mowgli, and it’s also possible that he may have killed Bruce Wayne’s parents as well.
Shere Khan demands that the animals of the jungle turn over the man-cub or else many will die, which does not go over well with Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), Mowgli’s adoptive wolf mom, who wants to protect her son. When the wolf pack later tries to decide just how they are going to handle the situation Mowgli interrupts their debate by telling them that he will leave. This is a nice departure from the original which had the wolves getting Bagheera to take Mowgli away for his own good, but then the film screws that up by still having Mowgli decide to still stay in the jungle, but maybe with the crocodiles. Mowgli is a bit of an idiot in this film, except when he is showing off his amazing inventor skills, then he is a jungle genius. Being human Mowgli has the creative ability to craft tools that would make his jungle life a tad easier, he makes a water gathering device and multiple rope gadgets, but both Bagheera and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), Mowgli’s foster dad and head of the wolf pack, give him shit for not doing things the wolf way.
This is an odd theme for the movie to toss out there. Why would animals give a crap if one of their own was using his abilities differently, especially if it could help out the pack? It comes across as a false and unnecessary conflict, we already have Shere Khan demanding the death of Mowgli, do we really need more drama than that? Overall I hated the wolves in this movie as not only do they give Mowgli grief for not acting more “wolf-like” but they come across as complete cowards who almost immediately give into Shere Khan’s threats. In the original story I always felt that the wolves knew that there was no way they could protect Mowgli one hundred percent of the time if Shere Khan was hunting him, so the little tike was sent away for his own good, but here it’s clear that wolves are more worried about their own hides than Mowgli’s, and they show their bellies to the big cat right off the bat. I’m not sure the filmmakers understand pack mentality at all. Regardless Mowgli leaves with Bagheera and his jungle adventures begin, and by that I mean they begin to check off moments from the animated film.
Mowgli runs into Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), who uses her snake like charms to mesmerize Mowgli, and for some reason this gives him flashbacks to his father being killed by Shere Khan. Baloo shows up to rescue the kid, but only so he can help him get honey as this version of Baloo is more of a con man than a lovable jungle bum. It’s here that we see that Mowgli can invent the hell out of anything as he devises an elaborate rope and cable system for getting honey that would put the Swiss Family Robinsons to shame. Bagheera eventually shows up again so that we can move onto the King Louis (Christopher Walken) portion of our movie. A group of monkeys and apes snatch Mowgli on behest of their king who really wants man’s red flower (that’s fire for you non jungle folk). This scene is just bizarre. King Louis here is more akin King Kong than orangutan from the original, he’s bloody huge and lurks in the shadows mimicing Marlon Brando from Apocalypse Now. This is certainly a strange reference to make in what is marketed as a kid’s film. Though a massive and scary looking King Louis singing “I Want to be Like You” was kind of awesome, and a little freaky, I found the decision to incorporate some of the songs from the animated film to be a major misstep as they constantly fought against the tone Favreau seemed to be aiming for.
Now I must say the look of this film is simply gorgeous. Though shot onstage with green screen technology Jon Favreau gives us an amazing jungle that one easily gets lost in just by looking at it. The CGI for all the animal characters is universally excellent, and the action sequences with them are beyond reproach, but by god is Neel Sethi ever a terrible actor. I hate to slam a young kid in his first movie role but he was horrible, not one line of dialog was convincing. All he seemed to be doing was reading lines of dialog at different decibels with no emotion whatsoever. Though to be fair he was working in a completely green screen environment, starring at green tennis balls can’t aid ones acting, and he certainly wasn’t helped out by the script as for much of the film’s running time I was wishing Shere Khan would eat the irritating little shit. I know many will like this film based on the nostalgia factor, and how visually stunning the whole project looks, but it failed to engage me on any emotional level. Shere Khan is trotted out way too early which diminishes his onscreen power, Mowgli’s motivation changes like the wind, and his friends are almost as annoying as he is. If you are going to see this movie see it on the big screen because on a television set it will lose most of its positive elements.
- This jungle has “Peace Rock” instead of “Pride Rock” so that’s original.
- Mowgli gets caught in Simba’s wildebeest stampede.
- How has Mowgli lived in the jungle all these years yet had never met an elephant until now?
- Mowgli also seems unfamiliar with Kaa, so this seems like a case of bad parenting.
- Why some animals have language yet others don’t is never explained. The apes and monkeys minions don’t talk but King Louis does.
- Mowgli has magically disappearing bee stings.
- By the end of the film most of the animals should be siding with Shere Khan as Mowgli is clearly the greater threat.
- The end credit sequence was my favorite part.