The original Jungle Book is a beloved, if highly flawed, film. While many chose to remember the musical numbers and scenes that work, the lack of plot and fairly questionable ending definitely makes the old cartoon feel dated. I think its important to point this out because I didn’t go into director John Favreau’s newest remake hoping, or expecting it, to be a shot for shot retelling of the original. And while not without some problems, The Jungle Book 2016 is easily one of my favorite remakes in the past decade.
The story is largely the same as in the original book and Disney film. Mowgli is a boy that grows up in the jungle, but is forced on a quest to reach a nearby human village, lest he be killed by the tiger Shere Kahn. Along the way, he meets friends and foes alike in Kaa the snake, Baloo the bear and King Louie the orangutan. A lot is discussed of the destructive nature of man, and what it means to accept who you are, up until the third act. Without giving anything away, The major story changes really show up in the third act, and really help give the 2016 film an overarching theme that ties the movie together in a way the original just doesn’t.
Every actor in this film feels like a perfect choice their roles. Bill Murray gives his strongest performance in years, playing Baloo with the same lovable personality that made the original so memorable. Likewise, Ben Kingsley’s Bagherra seems more noble then his cartoon counterpart, coming off less as like a disapproving dad, and more like a genuine guardian figure for Mowgli. The adopted wolf parents of Mowgli also get more fleshed out roles in the story, and are given plenty of personality from Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito and The Force Awakens’ Lupita N’yongo.
The Villains have also been more fleshed out in this version. Idres Elba’s Shere Kahn now comes off less like a generic Disney bad guy, and more like a genuine threat. His hatred for man is given a lot more explanation, which plays more into his ruthless actions throughout the film. Likewise, Christopher Walken’s King Louie now feels more like a mob boss, who’s imposing size plays well with the more threatening tone of his scenes. Lastly, Scarlet Johansen gives a different take on Kaa, as the giant snake now plays the role of a story teller, providing Mowgli and the audience details on Mowgli’s past. Her voice work manages to capture both the captivating nature of Kaa, while also adding in a slightly seductive twist to previous incarnations.
Effects-wise, the film is revolutionary. Never before have we gotten characters this detailed and expressive on screen, let alone ones that look exactly like their animal counterparts. At several points throughout the film, a character would appear, and I’d think it was that real animal filmed on camera, and not a computer effect. The actors performances are really able to shine through in this regard, as the effects manage to capture more emotional moments very well. Equal praise should be given to the animators responsible for how the animals move, with each character giving a fascinating middle ground between the movements of a real animal, while also carrying the movements of an actors performance.
Equally impressive are the environments, which while all CGI, are all beautiful. Jungle landscapes are fully populated with color and life, while little details throughout litter the screen. The tree tops where viewers encounter Kaa are fogged and darkly lit, yet naturally seem like a part of the same jungle. The range of colors and beautiful vistas evoke a sense of appreciation for nature and the environment that I haven’t felt since Avatar seven years ago, and it’s made even more beautiful by the film’s good use of 3D. While many films abuse this for no reason, The Jungle Book is a film actually deserving to be seen in an IMAX theater.
Even with all of these stand out elements, a good plot is what matters, and the 2016 film offers a lot of welcome changes. While the original tale remains mostly in tact, the 2 hour running time allows the film to take its time, delving into the inner thoughts and emotions behind each character. Relationships feel more natural, as Mowgli and Baloo’s friendship is given more screen time, as is Mowgli’s conflict with Shere Kahn. The movie is also a lot darker, with plenty of characters dying on screen, as well as some of the scarier elements like Kaa’s seducing of Mowgli given a lot more weight. The major changes in the third act give Mowgli a lot more to do, and provides an ending that, while crowd pleasing, also feels more befitting of the film’s theme of learning to appreciate your own strengths, rather then trying to be something you arent.
Even with everything the 2016 film has going for it, there are some issues that need to be addressed. While newcomer Neel Sethi does a fine job as Mowgli, he does sometimes lean on “kid-acting” tropes, communicating heavily with his hands and speaking louder when he’s trying to elicit a difficult emotion. For everything the film does right with its characters, Kaa’s role is cut down to a single scene, and feels like a glorified cameo, despite Johansen’s stellar performance. And while the film is very musically focused, some of it doesn’t work; While the instrumental music is good, the new versions of “Bear Necessities” and “I Want to be Like You” can’t help but feel like covers of the Disney cartoon’s better versions. What’s worse, the new and superior version of Kaa’s song “Trust in Me” isn’t even in the film, found only during the ending credits and on the films CD.
Overall, The Jungle Book is that rare film that doesn’t feel strange to call “Beautiful.” With captivating performances, gorgeous visuals, and a great modernization of a classic tale, John Favreau’s remake offers everything the animated film was lacking, while also managing to remind people what made the story so beloved in the first place. While it could have settled for the “Bare Necessities”, The Jungle Book is a fantastic time for anyone that wants to get swept up in this beautiful tale.
Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 9 Songs Now Stuck in Your Head Out of 10