The Jungle Book,
directed by Jon Favreau
(Walt Disney Pictures, 2016)

It's not that the new, live-action version of The Jungle Book is a bad movie. In many ways, it's actually quite good. But one starts to wonder why, exactly, the Walt Disney company -- which, after all, owns rights to the Star Wars and Marvel movie universes, among others -- is so bereft of ideas that it feels the need to make and remake the same film.

First there was Disney's 1967 animated version of The Jungle Book, which -- although, as the Honest Trailer folks rightly point out, has some serious problems -- is entertaining in many ways. Then there's Disney's 1994 live-action version that, again, has its problems but also has some strong points. And there's Disney's 1998 straight-to-video version, The Jungle Book: Mowgli's Story, which I never watched. (I'll ignore the darker version scheduled for release in 2018, directed by Andy Serkis and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett, because it's a Warner Bros. project, not Disney.)

Can't Disney come up with something new? I know the studio is all agog about live-action versions of its classic animated features, but is that really necessary?

Sigh. OK, now that my rant is out of the way, let's look at the latest interpretation of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.

The story is basically the same as it was in 1967. Mowgli (Neel Sethi), an orphaned child, is raised by wolves and the friendly black panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley). He is forced to flee the jungle -- unwillingly -- after he's found by the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who wants to kill him. Along the way to the closest human village, Mowgli is menaced by the giant snake Kaa (Scarlet Johansson), interacts with elephants and pals around with the big bear Baloo (Bill Murray? seriously?) before being kidnapped by apes led by King Louie (come on, Christopher Walken?), who wants the secret of fire.

The CGI effects are excellent. Full marks on that point -- I can't emphasize enough how realistic-looking the animals are, even when they're talking. And, although the movie was made on a blue-screen stage in Hollywood, you'll believe they were on location in India. This movie looks good.

There are some glaring errors in geography, however -- for instance, Baloo, a sloth bear, looks like a much larger Himalayan brown bear, which isn't indigenous to the Indian jungle; snakes don't ever get as big as Kaa; the elephants are African, rather than Indian, in appearance; wolves in that part of the world don't actually live in the jungle, etc. -- all of which drag you right out of the carefully crafted setting. Also, I question recreating King Louie -- originally conceived as a hip orangutan -- as a gigantopithecus, a much larger but also long-extinct variant.

The movie makes good and bad choices regarding music. Animated Kaa's eerie song "Trust in Me" -- made creepier by the vocals of Winnie-the-Pooh voice actor Sterling Holloway -- is now an atmospheric backdrop to a mesmerizing attempt on Mowgli's life by Johansson's live-action Kaa. On the other hand, director Jon Favreau can't seem to let go of the catchy '67 hit "Bear Necessities," so he has Murray and Sethi sing it kind of tunelessly, even though this isn't a musical. It rips you right out of the jungle. So, too, does Walken's riff on King Louie's scat. (On the other hand, I rather enjoyed both Walken's and Johansson's songs over the end credits, where they don't interfere with the scene.)

I'll admit, I enjoyed the movie more than I expected (and, bear in mind, I loved the cartoon when I was a kid). I'm still not sure why Disney felt it necessary to make another one -- apparently rushing their production to beat Serkis's version to the punch -- but, nitpicking aside, it's a good job overall. It looks great, and the plot comes together better than it did in 1967. I would watch this again for the visual aspect alone.

But, as much as I love ya, Bill Murray, you're no Phil Harris.

review by
Tom Knapp

14 January 2017

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