A remake of the 1967 animation, The Jungle Book tells the tale of Mowgli, a child adopted by wolves. The tiger Shere Khan has a grudge against humans and wants the kid dead. On Mowgli’s flight through the jungle, he meets a variety of interesting characters, including Baloo the bear, Kaa the snake and Louie, king of the apes.
I am very impressed. The more movies you see, the more The Jungle Book stands out as an achievement. In an age where reboots of old classics are unashamedly plundered for their box office potential and horribly defaced in the process (I’m looking at you, Alice in Wonderland, and you, Ben Hur, even though you’re not even released yet). And in an age where cheap CGI can drown a movie like rotting mayonnaise over your fries, or even suddenly sneak in to drag your movie a notch down (those tentacle beasts in The Force Awakens). The Jungle Book is a rare instance of a team going beyond what was required of them; beyond Good Enough to Let’s See What We Can Do.
The jungle is more or less entirely a CGI environment, like in Avatar. But even though it is a slightly overly picturesque jungle, it looks very real. Unlike in Avatar. And the animals too. I kept saying to myself: this really looks real. This movie is a technical wonder. Neel Sethi, the little kid who plays Mowgli, does a really good job interacting with this environment, and with the animated animals around him. They probably filmed Bill Murray walking besides Neel while filming and Murray hitting the kid on the back and so on, but the kid does it well and is a good find.
One tricky part is: what to do with the songs? Favreau clearly didn’t want to make this movie a musical, but the songs from the 1967 version are a fundamental part of what makes The Jungle Book The Jungle Book. His solution is to hint a little bit at the songs. He skipped some, like the vultures’ song and the little Indian girl song, but those are not heavy losses. And he abridged others to a few simple lines. If you were looking forward to hearing Scarlett Johansson sing “trust in me” as Kaa, well, that is no more than a single line. Similarly with King Louie, who sings only a short piece, but since Christopher Walken isn’t much of a singer, I can forgive that. The end credits make it up by featuring the Kaa and King Louie songs in their entirety.
There is another tricky thing about those songs and that is that they only make sense if you’ve seen the 1967 animation. If you’d know nothing about The Jungle Book, then you might wonder why these animals starts singing all the sudden. Especially King Louie, because his swinging tune is totally out of tone with the dark, brooding scene that precedes it. As Mowgli enters the monkey kingdom and is led before Louie who is like a brooding giant, hidden among the shadows, then what comes to mind is Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. You would have been shocked to see Colonel Kurtz doing some jazz.
While the voice cast is right on the money, with Bill Murray as a smooth, talkative bear and Ben Kingsley as a stern Bagheera, I am not 100% happy with the treatment of all the characters. Shere Khan for example, is now turned into a pure vicious monster. Admittedly, Idris Elba makes him very menacing, but in 1967, Shere Khan was much more of a character. He was like a gentleman bastard with a high-class British accent. He was a pompous cat who liked to play with his prey. I would have loved to see the scene where Shere Khan interrogated Kaa; that would have lifted up both of these characters, but it was cut.
There are many more changes near the end, but none of it is offensive. The Jungle Book is overall an overwhelmingly positive experience and it is worth it to see it on the big screen. This may be the first time in history where a film can be almost entirely in CGI, while not being a case of “too much CGI”. It is a very involving film with a nice, straightforward adventure story and I wholeheartedly recommend it.