Some movies are made at the right time. Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book – the newest of several adaptations of Rudyard Kipling’s original stories, and more specifically a 3D live-action remake of Disney’s 1967 animated film – is, on a purely technical level, just right for 2016, since by now enough advancements in computer technology and special effects techniques have been made to do the story justice. The animal characters, who are almost entirely rendered digitally, are very convincing, looking more or less the same as their real-life counterparts. They’re not cute and cuddly cartoons, despite the fact that they’re given the very cartoon-like ability to talk and sing in the same way as humans.
Simultaneously, some movies aren’t at all intended to reflect the time in which they were made. On a narrative level, The Jungle Book doesn’t break any ground; it’s a coming of age fable that relies on just about every device we’ve come to expect, including but not limited to a young hero on a quest, a series of challenges the hero must face, and the pivotal moment when the hero transitions from childhood to maturity. But I’m not being critical when I say this. While it’s good to hunger for less conventional cinematic experiences, I believe it’s also good to yearn for that which is familiar, not just because it can be comforting, but also because it’s a good reminder of why audiences have been going to the movies for over a century. It isn’t always about edification. Sometimes, it’s about being entertained.
The approach taken by Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks was, for the most part, to slightly downplay the innate lightheartedness of the animal characters, to make them a little less like their more family-friendly animated incarnations. Baloo, for example, remains a wisecracker (aided in no small part by a vocal performance by Bill Murray) and yet isn’t merely a fun-loving gray bear; he’s initially portrayed as an opportunist, a con man who befriends Mowgli simply because he’s too lazy to knock down large, bee-infested honeycombs on his own. Only in time does he come to think of Mowgli as a dear friend. And Kaa, the python, is no longer comedy relief, as when voiced by Sterling Holloway in 1967; now a female character voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Kaa is a lethal temptress, hypnotizing Mowgli with expository visions of his past before attempting to eat him.
The biggest change would be to King Louie, the orangutan. As voiced by Louis Prima in the animated film, he’s a wacky, jazzy caricature, more fun than fearsome. In Favreau’s film, in which he’s voiced by Christopher Walken, he’s a hulking brute portrayed as a cross between Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now and a mob boss; he’ll be good to you, but only if you’re good to him, and if you’re not, as Mowgli isn’t, then God help you. To digress for a second, there’s a brief moment after Mowgli enters Louis’ temple and, among an enviable horde of treasure, picks up a cowbell; I feared that this would become a gratuitous reference to the overrated and unfunny cowbell sketch from Saturday Night Live, in which Walken appeared, but thankfully, nothing came of it.
Despite his more sinister depiction, Louis still gets to sing “I Wan’na Be Like You,” originally written for the animated film. Likewise, Baloo gets to sing “The Bare Necessities.” Obviously, the songs were intentionally included as an homage, and I understand the thinking that went into it. Nevertheless, they felt out of place in this new version, coming off less like a way to propel the narrative and more like a nostalgic obligation. I won’t get into another one of my rants about how remakes should be allowed to stand on their own. I’ll only say that, even in a film in which animals are made to talk, sometimes musical interludes just aren’t needed. No, not even when said interludes are very well known and much beloved.
The vocal cast – which includes Ben Kingsley as the protective panther Bagheera, Idris Elba as the evil tiger Shere Khan, and Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha, Mowgli’s loving adoptive wolf mother – is excellent. But the real standout of The Jungle Book is human star Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli. For a young boy to endure an entire film shoot virtually naked had to have been difficult enough as it was; he had the added challenge of having to perform with characters that wouldn’t exist until post production. Whether because of talent, Favreau’s direction, or both, he was consistently convincing.
The movie as a whole isn’t quite as convincing (I could be a killjoy and point out that the jungles of India aren’t known for wolves or bears or orangutans), but it still manages to be entertaining, heartfelt, and a triumph of today’s art direction and special effects.