Disney’s New and Improved “The Jungle Book” Serves up a Zesty, if Recycled, Version of Itself

Jungle Book

The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau, 2016)

Here’s a question for you: would you be as excited – if excited you are – for the new live-action (so called) version of Disney’s 1967 animated classic, The Jungle Book, if that previous movie did not exist? Were this but an adaptation of the stories of Rudyard Kipling – as listed in the final “based on” credits – would there be that thrilling frisson when first we lay eyes on Baloo, the bear, knowing that his signature song, “The Bare Necessities,” is just around the cinematic corner? Given our penchant, as a species, to tell the same stories over and over again – to re-stage plays, re-orchestrate melodies, remake films, etc. – a modern reboot of a 49-year-old film should surprise no one. Is it enough, however, to merely take a beloved tale and give it a (somewhat) fresh spin with new technologies and new actors? I’m still not sure where I stand.

Truth be told, I had a lot of fun watching this 3D, CGI-laden take on the tale, from director Jon Favreau (Iron Man). The design of the picture is a marvel, recalling that other masterful use of 3D, from 2012, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, and the voice talent – which includes Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Ben Kingsley (The Walk), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Bill Murray (St. Vincent), and Christopher Walken (Seven Psychopaths) – is more than up to the challenge of developing character and entertaining the audience. The script is solid, sticking remarkably close to Disney’s original (even if credited to an entirely new screenwriter, curiously enough), though with some notable changes that actually improve the narrative and remove some of its egregiously racist elements. The new King Louie (Walken), ruler of the monkeys, may still sing “I Wanna Be Like You,” but he does so without the exaggerated mannerisms of a jazz trumpeter, a classic Disney moment perhaps not as painful as the crows in Dumbo, but unfortunate, nevertheless. So there is much to love and appreciate in this millennial Jungle Book.

For those who have never read Kipling nor seen the first movie, the story takes place in what looks to be someplace on the Indian subcontinent, though the animal inhabitants of the jungle, as designed by the visual effects specialists, may or may not belong there, geographically speaking. Our hero is one Mowgli – newcomer Neel Sethi, the one actual “live-action” performer on screen, who is perfect and holds his own against all of the digital wizardry – an orphaned human boy raised by wolves after a black panther, Bagheera (Kingsley), finds him and brings him to them. As the film begins, Mowgli is happily playing with his canid brothers – though disappointed that he cannot run like a wolf – and doted on by his wolf mother, Raksha (Nyong’o), when a drought brings a long-absent tiger, Shere Khan (Elba), to the local watering hole. Shere Khan – his face scarred by human-made fire – hates men, and issues a warning to all that, once the drought is over, he will return to kill Mowgli. Since no one can match the tiger’s strength, Bagheera agrees to guide Mowgli to a human village, where he will ostensibly be safe. The boy, at home in the jungle, reluctantly agrees to follow Bagheera, but along the way, Shere Khan tracks them down, and in the ensuing scramble Mowgli and Bagheera are separated. Lost, Mowgli is saved from the clutches of Kaa (Johansson), a lovely, if deadly, cobra, by Baloo (Murray), a happy-go-lucky bear who makes the young boy his food-gathering partner. The ensuing idyll cannot last forever, however, and so Mowgli is faced with the choice of what to do next: rejoin the human race, or fight back against Shere Khan and make a true home for himself in the jungle. Along the way, he must decide if he is more animal or man, or find a way to reconcile and combine both elements.

In many ways, the new film is a significant improvement on its predecessor (I am conveniently ignoring the 1994 live-action bomb). So what, exactly, is my problem? Why do I not wax more rapturous? Perhaps it is merely my increasing fatigue with Hollywood’s continual recycling – cannibalizing, if you will – of its past. Granted, if one is to feast on one’s own flesh, then let the seasoning be as piquant as it is here. But wouldn’t a fresh kill – or harvest, for the vegans in the audience – be even more appetizing? I’m not sure if this is a vain hope, or even a hypocritical one, given how much enjoyable sustenance I took from the experience. Yet when it was all over, there was still an emptiness within me, a feeling that something – some nourishing inspiration – was missing. The good news for all of you is that this could just be my issue. I suspect I am overthinking the movie. As a piece of thrilling well-made entertainment, appropriate for the whole family, it is at the top of its class. So see it, and if you can avoid my kind of metaphysical musings on the fate of storytelling in our day, then you should have a great time.

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