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Review: The Jungle Book (2016)

The Jungle Book (2016)

Directed by: Jon Favreau

Premise: Based on the book by Rudyard Kipling. A boy raised by wolves must abandon the pack when a tiger intends to kill him. He travels toward a human village and encounters various animals along the way.

What Works: The Jungle Book is the latest in a series of live-action remakes of classic Disney animated features and this film is a lot of fun. The movie comes from filmmaker Jon Favreau, who had previously helmed pictures such as Zathura, Elf, and Iron Man. Favreau has a grasp of how to tell adventure stories for a family audience and his movies recall the early work of Steven Spielberg like E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark as well as the live action pictures Disney was making in the 1950s and 60s such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and A Tiger Walks. Unlike a lot of today’s animated movies, Favreau presents situations with life and death stakes without unnecessarily softening the material but unlike a lot of contemporary comic book pictures the filmmaker is also able to tell serious adventure yarns while still having fun. The Jungle Book features a steady stream of action as Mowgli gets into one adventure after another. But the movie is also very funny, more so than even a lot of comedies. The special effects of The Jungle Book are great. The creatures and settings are terrifically detailed and entirely lifelike. Especially impressive are the animals. Talking animals are very difficult to get right in live action and in a lot of other movies they end up looking silly. The animals of The Jungle Book don’t look like special effects or like cartoons. They are flesh and blood characters but they are also very animalistic; the technicians behind the animal characters have included a lot of subtle details in the performances so that the animals move like beasts of the jungle and yet they speak in a way that looks credible. Actor Neel Sethi plays Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, and he does well in the part. He’s convincing in the role and Sethi’s performance is all the more impressive when accounting for the fact that he is the only human character in the entire movie. The filmmakers give Mowgli a sufficient character arc in a way that plays on some of the traditional themes of movies about young people. Since Mowgli is raised by wolves he keeps trying to be one of them but of course he’s not and eventually the movie reaffirms popular ideas about self-confidence but it matches those ideas with a sense of personal responsibility.

What Doesn’t: The 2016 version of The Jungle Book is technically an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s book but it is much more a live action remake of Disney’s 1967 animated film. Unlike Maleficent and the 2015 remake of Cinderella, which brought some new ideas to the material and reimagined the characters, the new version of The Jungle Book hews very closely to Disney’s 1967 film, duplicating it almost beat-for-beat. This remake is so close to the original picture that it puts the rationale for making it into question. The fact that the movie is live action instead of animation and benefits from contemporary special effects is enough to justify this version but those familiar with the original movie are going to find this very familiar. Is seems as though the filmmakers themselves were aware of that tension and the strain reveals itself in the musical numbers. Like most Disney animated features, 1967’s The Jungle Book was a musical and it had a few classic tunes such as “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” and “Trust in Me.” Those songs are repeated here but halfheartedly, as though the filmmakers don’t want to be doing them but included them anyway. The musical numbers are awkward and don’t quite fit into the style of this live action picture the way that they did in the animated form.

Bottom Line: The Jungle Book is a terrific piece of entertainment. The movie is a successful throwback to the Disney films of half a century ago and despite how much it repeats from the 1967 picture the new film successfully updates the material for a contemporary audience.

Episode: #592 (April 24, 2016)