Movie Review: “The Jungle Book” (2016)

There’s a really good chance that when you think of classic Disney animated pictures, you don’t think of The Jungle Book. Released in 1967 to positive reviews and solid box office numbers, Walt Disney’s final production before his death nevertheless hasn’t quite found a way to the cultural pantheon occupied by films like Cinderella, Pinocchio, or even Beauty and the Beast. We could probably come up with several explanations for this, but here’s the best I can do: Surrounded by its genre’s stories of magic, The Jungle Book is a story of survival. There’s humor, cheer, and fun songs, of course, but the soul of the tale is as dark as the pitiless wild Mowgli inhabits.

It’s that quality that made the movie an obvious candidate for a remake. That’s the best way to understand Jon Favreau’s marvelous offering. It’s neither sequel nor reimagining, but an update, a technologically dazzling and thematically richer version of the film everyone seems to have seen and so few seem to really remember.

The script, by Justin Marks, takes almost no meaningful deviations from that of the animated movie, with two exceptions. One of those I cannot describe without giving away a key part of the ending. The other change involves the wolf pack that adopted Mowgli, which plays a much larger role here. Mowgli thinks of himself as a wolf, and though his adopted canine parents know better, they teach, protect, and love Mowgli as if he is one. But the mob boss-like tiger Shere Khan threatens a murderous rampage unless the boy—who will grow up, Khan says, to build fire and destroy the jungle—is surrendered to him. Mowgli flees the pack, and his adventure in a vast, untamed wilderness begins.

Marks’s script improves on several aspects of the animated one, but the most rewarding improvement is thematic. The animated Mowgli was petulant, defiant and largely devoid of any psychological intrigue. Here Mowgli wants to know where he belongs. The snake Kaa puts Mowgli in a trance by showing him the real story of his jungle orphanage, and Mowgli continually has to remind himself not to use his “tricks” –his human ability to reason and invent–for it is those abilities that are incomprehensible to the wild animals he lives with. Identity is a key theme in Disney’s filmography, and it would have been easy for Marks and Favreau to browbeat their movie into a cliché. Instead, they’ve given us a subtle and rich narrative of belonging. “You can’t fight like a wolf because you’re not a wolf,” a character tells Mowgli in a key moment. “Fight like a man.”

This is, I think, closer to the heart of Rudyard Kipling than what was accomplished in 1967. Consider his classic poem “If,” which promises the reader that the reward for courageous virtue (“If you can keep your head when all about you // Are losing theirs and blaming it on you”) is maturity (“What’s more // You’ll be a man, my son”). Torn between what seems right (living with the wolves) and what seems inevitable (life at the man village), Mowgli finds peace with Baloo the bear, who gives him freedom to be human around him. This tale isn’t about becoming less of an animal but becoming more of a man, signaled by Mowgli’s (and the jungle’s) realization that love and sacrifice are stronger than DNA. Mowgli’s victory is, finally, in becoming who he is. Kipling, a Christian, did not intend The Jungle Book to be religious allegory, but it’s impossible to ignore the imagery here.

All of this is made vivid in Favreau’s vision. The jungle itself is less clear. Favreau and his photographer, Bill Pope (who also shot the Matrix films), have created a twisted and dense forest, layered in thick fog and opaque textures. It’s a visually enthralling world that serves its mysterious story better than the bright shapes of cell-shade animation.

But as good as the jungle itself looks, it’s no rival for the film’s digital animals. I can honestly testify, dear reader, that at multiple times during The Jungle Book, I could not tell whether the animals whose lips were giving dialogue were live creatures or CGI images. IMDB informs me that an enormous group of people were involved in the visual effects of this film, and I believe it. The interaction between the young actor Neel Sethi and his digital companions is stunningly gorgeous, an achievement magnified by the very wise decision to make the animals look like authentic species rather than faux-cartoons. The best compliment I can think to pay this film’s visual triumph may be this: It looks exactly like how a new reader of Kipling’s story would imagine it.

As for voice-talent, we might as well just do a Hollywood roll-call. Bill Murray (Baloo the bear), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera the panther), Christopher Walken (King Louie the ape), Scarlett Johanssen (Kaa the serpent), and Lupita Nyong’o (Raksha the she-wolf) are all delights. But the best turn is from Idris Elba, whose deviously sultry Shere Khan somehow manages to stand toe to toe with George Sanders’ timeless performance.

All the parts fall into place for Disney on this one. Favreau has reignited Kipling’s tale with soul and spectacle, and has justified, at least for a moment, Hollywood’s imagination stagnation. The Jungle Book’s technological achievement is serious, and will almost certainly trigger a deluge of golden-era remakes (my fear is that Disney could never pass up the chance to redo The Lion King with such tools). But let us lay that aside for now, and admire such a handsome and satisfying film.

Walt Disney Pictures presents a Jon Favreau film. Written by Justin Marks. Based on the book by Rudyard Kipling. 110 minutes. PG.

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