The Jungle Book (2016) Review

Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967) is one of the most well-known Disney classics of all time.  Sure, it’s not perfect (there’re many pointless side characters and copy-pasted animation cycles in that movie), but the memorable songs, amiable characters, and impressive backgrounds make it a classic.  Given the recent trend of unnecessarily remaking Disney classics in live-action, you’d expect that I would be upset when they announced a remake of The Jungle Book.  It’s not like I don’t have legitimate reasons to loathe having to watch the movie!  101 Dalmatians, Alice in Wonderland, and Maleficent all suck and they only reinforced the notion that remaking Disney classics would never work.  Last year we were treated to a film that broke that chain of failure, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella.  Perfect it is not, but it is by far the best Disney remake out there.  One year later, we received an even better remake, Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book.

The Jungle Book is directed by Jon Favreau and written by Justin Marks.  Stars-Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Lupita Nyong’o, and Neel Sethi as Mowgli.  Premise-An infant boy (Mowgli) is raised in the jungle by a family of wolves and a sympathetic panther.  When a man-hating tiger threatens Mowgli, the boy must travel back to a man-village so that he may be protected by them.  This travel will be full of perils, friends, adventures, and self-growth.

Few people remember Chuck Jones’ (legendary animation director) Mowgli’s Brothers, which was a much darker adaptation of the book.  I bring this up because The Jungle Book is sort of a combination of Mowgli’s Brothers and The Jungle Book (1967).  That should prove that this movie has no new ideas.  Seriously, this movie is creatively bankrupt.  That does not mean that it’s bad, it just reminds us of the fatal flaw with remakes in general.  Truth be told, this movie’s screenplay is surprisingly solid.  It improves upon both adaptations.  We see more involvement from Mowgli’s wolf parents, the pacing is even (save for a few scenes), and the culture of the jungle animals is much more interesting and explored.  Sadly, there are still major faults with it.

For one, Baloo’s character was completely screwed up.  In the original, Baloo is a big, free-spirited, lazy, fun-loving “jungle bum.”  In this version, he’s selfish, not as charming, not as funny, and kind of a jerkface.  He even guilt-trips Mowgli into helping him in one scene!  Let’s just say I found him to be more like Nick Wilde from Zootopia rather than Baloo.  There are a few clichés here and there, a huge exposition dump that makes no sense, the dialog is mostly timeless (like the original) until Baloo enters the frame, and Mowgli is not given much character development.

The star-studded voice cast worked out much better than I expected!  Oh I expected decent results, but these voice choices are incredible!  Bill Murray’s laid-back acting approach is perfect for Baloo, Ben Kingsley’s commanding tone makes a great Bagheera, Scarlett Johansson’s seductively silver-tongue is mesmerizing as Kaa, and Christopher Walken’s Christopher Walkenness fits King Louie.  Neel Sethi is trying, and his results are fine.  Obviously he is standing in a room with green walls everywhere so it would be hard to get immersed in the environment, but under Jon Favreau’s guidance (who’s had a lot of experience directing kids), Neel gave a decent performance.

Time for the part where the intent critic rants about CGI in movies!  I have a long and tiring history with F/X and how they’re used in movies, but for the sake of time, let’s just focus on what The Jungle Book has to offer.  The CGI in this movie is truly breathtaking.  The incredible amount of detail in every leaf, every strand of fur on the animals and how the animals move, the cinematography, designs, and lighting are impeccable, although it does get inconsistent a few times.  Baloo looks subpar, and in one scene where it is raining heavily, Mowgli has no rain falling on him.  This is incredibly obvious and it is not the only time you can tell that they couldn’t complete the effect.  What I’m more impressed about is the music and the sound.  I can imagine that it must have been quite difficult to mix and edit the sound for a movie that was mostly made on a computer, but the correct sound effects are used and it adds a lot to the atmosphere.  The score was done by John Debney who also composed Elf (which was also directed by Favreau), The Passion of the Christ, and Spy Kids.  I’m going to be honest, I thought the score was done by Hans Zimmer because of how high-quality it is!  Not to say that Debney isn’t as good as Zimmer (that’s up for debate), but he doesn’t always pick good films to score.  However, when he finds a director who knows what they want from him, he composes something that manages to combine the original music from The Jungle Book and add his own talents to create beautifully fitting music (which deserves an Oscar nod for sure).

I reacted in a way I never expected when I saw this movie, slightly more impressed than when I watched Cinderella (2015).  This movie has faults, many of them, but it also has strengths, very powerful ones.  If Disney remakes continue on this path of improvement, then maybe one day I will look forward to the inevitable live-action remake of BambiThe Jungle Book (2016) gets Guy’s Guru Grade of a B+.

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