Disney’s The Jungle Book – well, the 1967 animated adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 novel to be specific – is notable not just for its characters, but also being the final film that Walt himself worked on before his death in 1966. That aspect, along with the general amount of nostalgia, tends to cloud some of the film’s larger flaws. Namely, the lack of cohesive plot, inconsistent songs and a genuine lack of development or even character for Mowgli, using him instead as an excuse to get from one set piece to the next. With Disney’s recent trend of retooling their projects in the animated canon, The Jungle Book seems like a more feasible option for remaking than Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. Thankfully, director Jon Favreau seized that potential and crafted a film that managed to do what every remake dreams of doing on some level; outdoing its original.
With this modern version of The Jungle Book, Favreau does what he does best as a director: balancing out a consistent sense of fun with an ability to take the material seriously. Even at his worst, Favreau knows that one has to believe the world of his stories in order to believe the characters and become enraptured with the story… unless its Cowboys & Aliens. Still, that concept carries over crucially into the craft of The Jungle Book, with an incredibly immersive environment that puts the audience in the jungle with these animals and a sense of hierarchy within the jungle that operates as a consistent world. Despite having extensive dialogue, these animals have the weight and visual ticks that make their actions seem real. Whether its Bagheera and Shere Khan fighting each other or Mowgli hugging Raksha goodbye in the rain, these animals feel like they’re actually in this enclosed environment interacting with each other instead of pixels in a pixel environment. It’s the next step of something like Life of Pi, with an entire jungle backdrop that has a sense of continuity and scale to it that never falters and is even improved by the presence of 3D.
So, when such an environment is so densely inhabited, the characters are allowed to grow in an authentic way. Case in point, Mowgli evolves from a whiny troublesome brat in the 1967 film to a confused boy raised by wolves trying to find his place in the world. His handiness with human made inventions and struggles with the encouragement & derision of others allows for a more convincing arc as this young boy struggles between his genetics and his adopted people. The animal characters are given the same fair shake, brought to life wonderfully by not just he animators who worked tirelessly to make each motion convincing but also the actors who imbue them with the perfect realization of their personalities. Probably the biggest highlights here are Bill Murray embodying the relaxed loyalty of Baloo and Idris Elba sending shivers down spines as the devious tiger Shere Khan who controls his villainy with complete belief in his position.
Most of the animals in The Jungle Book feel so authentic because their personalities are so consistent. I say most because the weakest spot of the entire film comes with one character: King Louie. Mind you, Christopher Walken has fun playing the gigantic version of the Orangutan originally voiced by Louis Prima in the 1967 film as a sort of jungle mob boss, but the scene feels repetitive to the ominous note of “Red Fire” mentioned by Kaa (voiced with a more seductive edge by Scarlett Johansson this time around) for the sake of action and… the song. The use of the “I Wanna Be Like You” song feels far more shoehorned into this darkly toned scene, especially when compared to the favorably appropriate use of Bare Necessities as an aspect of Baloo’s character and as a montage over Baloo & Mowgli coming together as friends. It’s a sore spot in the tail end of the second act that reminds us how forced nostalgia feels far inferior to innovation in reworking old ideas. The Jungle Book 2016 overall feels like the best middle ground between the original Kipling book and the beloved Disney classic: taking the situations seriously while knowing the exact appropriate time to goof around.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Paw Paw Plants