IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 105 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Mowgli is a man-cub raised by wolves ever since he was brought to them as a baby by Bagheera, the black panther. One day, all the animals gather at the Peace Rock to drink the water that remains, as part of the Water Truce, a timeout called during a drought that enables all animals to gather at a water hole without fear of being eaten by more predatory creatures. The gathering is disrupted when the tiger Shere Khan arrives, detects Mowgli’s scent amongst the crowd and threatens his life since man is not welcome in the jungle. He issues a warning that when the Water Truce ends and the Peace Rock disappears, he will come for the boy and that the wolves should decide how many of their own kind they would be willing to sacrifice to protect a man-cub. Mowgli voluntarily decides to leave the jungle for the sake and safety of his pack. Bagheera volunteers to guide him to human civilization…
I was fully prepared to dislike The Jungle Book, I really was. I fact, I wanted to dislike it. I doubt tht few will disagree with me when I say how disappointing it is that Disney seem to be focusing so much on remaking their back catalogue. For a start, it seems to reveal that perhaps the studio doesn’t cherish their mostly wonderful animated classics that much after all. It didn’t help that their third go at this story [their live action version from 1994 was a decent adventure though seems to be almost forgotten nowadays] was obviously based fairly and squarely on their much loved animated version from 1967 [ I guess we’ll have to wait until next year’s version from Warner Bros. to see an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s stories]. Surely this would just constantly invite comparisons with that version and leave one with a feeling of pointlessness? What’s the point of remaking something so closely, especially something which is still popular?
In fact, die hard fans of the animated version rejoice, this remake isn’t really as close to it as you may have been led to believe, and….gasp….it’s also rather good. Yes, the story and characters are virtually the same, and a few of the iconic scenes are recreated [though no vultures, where are the vultures?], but there are some good new additions to the plot, most notably the ‘Peace Rock’ which adroitly brings most of the jungle’s animals together to start off the plot, and the tone is quite different. While there are lighter sections, most of them unsurprisingly involving Baloo, this is a rather darker affair and there have been complaints that it’s too scary for children, which I think are nonsense. People, this is a ‘PG’-rated movie, not a ‘U’ rated one. Therefore it may not be suitable for very young kids, or at the very least they should be accompanied by an adult. One wonders at the fuss something like the ‘U’-rated Pinocchio or even The Lion King may get now if they were released from folk who believe that kids shouldn’t see anything frightening. It’s not as if The Jungle Book isn’t full of positive themes and messaging for youngsters to assimilate, though one of the most refreshing things about this is that, like Zootropolis, it promotes tolerance and togetherness, but doesn’t get infuriatingly preachy like that film, which really made you feel like you were in church.
John Debney’s score, which is a very impressive work from a composer I’m not too familiar with, opens with a few bars of music replicated from the beginning of the score to the 1967 film which lead us into a nice concise opening with Bagheera the black panther giving us some scene setting, and I was initially worried that this would be another Cinderella and rely far too much on narration [though it was otherwise very good], but luckily it soon went and the story was allowed to progress without us being told what we’re seeing. As a huge variety of animals gather at the Peace Rock, it’s immediately obvious that CG animation for animals has got even better and in fact has reached a point where it would be hard to improve on it. Most of these creatures look and feel totally feel and completely integrated with their surroundings [though of course they’re created by computers too] and with the human hero of the story. I say most, because they partly screwed up Shere Khan, who doesn’t always convince, especially when he’s moving. Why they missed the boat on this is a mystery since so much focus is on the tiger whenever he’s in a scene. And certain minor details elsewhere aren’t quite right – for example, they haven’t properly replicated those sad eyes that elephants have – but overall this film is another technical marvel that also doesn’t feel claustrophobic despite the fact that it was all shot in a studio and all the backgrounds were created digitally too.
Mowgli opts to leave where he’s been living to protect the others, and we get the first of several thrilling chase sequences before he temporarily escapes from Shere Khan. It’s all quite intense and serious, but, just like the great family movies, this film knows exactly when to change tone, and which tone to change to, so now things get happier and even a bit frivolous, though this Baloo isn’t quite as carefree as the one we’re familiar with. Visually things have been surprisingly muted or even dark too up to now, but now the film gets all bright and colourful. One thing which feels a bit’off’ is the use of The Bare Neccessities and I Wanna Be Like You which, even if shortened and slightly altered from the versions we all probably know by heart, seem a bit out of place, even in a film which feels to need to copy, though not exactly, scenes like probably my favourite bit in an animated film ever, the I Wanna Be Like You set piece with Mowgli, King Louis [who is now sort of a Mafia don] and the monkeys. This sequence climaxes in a truly exciting action set piece with Baloo and Bagheera battling hordes of primates of various kinds. In fact there are several thrilling set pieces throughout a film which has a real sense of brutality in its animal fights without showing any blood and depicting deaths [and there are some] subtly, though the final act feels a little rushed, with, notably, one important beat in the Mowgli/Bagheera relationship totally skipped over.
Clever storytelling allows us to see Mowgli’s origin story in one of Ka the snake’s eyes as she tries to hypnotise Mowgli, though adding a revenge element to the tale isn’t really necessary and almost cheapens it. Amidst certain echoes of The Lion King [for a start, this Shere Khan is so much like Scar] and even Tarzan, this version incorporates some commentary about mankind’s relationship to nature, but, as with its other themes, doesn’t thrust it down our throats. Screenwriter Justin Marks really had quite a hard job here, being asked to pen a script which had to follow the cartoon version but also have some freshness and modern concerns. I think he succeeded pretty well, and by the way he still remembers to provide some bits of humour which are expertly delivered by Bill Murray especially, though he’s really just reprising his Garfield role again, while Neel Seffi as Mowgli is terrific in some parts and a bit weak in others, though considering that he had to act against a giant green screen he still did an admirable job overall. Overall this Jungle Book achieves quite a delicate balancing act in its mixing of its various elements, and there were times that I really was quite amazed at how much I was enjoying it, and how good I thought it was, considering that it’s a movie that doesn’t really have a reason to exist.
And that’s the problem I suppose. While I personally wouldn’t put it in the top ten of Disney cartoon features [though it definitely belongs in the top fifteen], the original [well, it’s not really the original movie, as the first version made was actually from 1942 and is a pretty technically impressive work in its own right if you take into account when it was made] Jungle Book is still fantastic fun and just didn’t need to be remade. Therefore I’m not sure that I like myself for praising Jon Favreau’s version so much. But now that’s two recent Disney remakes [let’s ignore the rather weak Maleficent] that have turned out rather well. Oh dear.