REVIEW: The Jungle Book (2016)

Words by: Jack Dawson

It’s easy for critics of any medium to fall into the trap of eternal cynicism, of expecting the worst of every piece of media that passes under their scrutiny. And it’s usually fun to read cutting take-downs of popular films that blow millions on marketing, especially if there’s a grain of truth behind the colourful insults.

But sometimes there are unavoidable indicators that the world of films is not nearly as rotten as critics like to think it is, and one of those indicators is the steady rise in quality of the Disney-Live-Action-Remake-Of-An-Animated-Film, a genre that began with Alice in Wonderland (which is near unwatchable) and has now given us The Jungle Book, a film that successfully expands upon its source material in a way that is distinctive and immensely watchable.

Mowgli is a small human child who has been literally raised by Wolves in an unspecified jungle in India, who is forced by unforeseen circumstances (a phrase which here means ‘A Homicidal Tiger’) to leave the Jungle and seek out his true home amongst other humans. Mowgli is less than keen on the idea of leaving the Jungle, and so meets various bad influences who he must either learn or escape from. And all the time, the aforesaid unforeseen circumstances is conspiring to draw Mowgli into a fight that only one of them will survive.

Of all the Live Action Disney Remakes released so far, The Jungle Book is the first that successfully builds upon the animated film it’s based on. Maleficent was at its best when it acted against its source material, and Cinderella was a better retelling of the Cinderella fairy-tale than it was a riff on the animated film.

But The Jungle Book picks and chooses elements from the Animated film to build upon or discard, and is a genuinely fine film because of it.
For example, whereas the original Disney animated film portrayed the elephants of the Jungle as bumbling army officers, the remake instead casts them as revered figures who are said to have created the Jungle. It’s a change that offers some depth to the setting and a genuinely effective payoff in the climax, the mark of a good filmmaker exercising an experienced eye over a rich source material.
Having not read the book, I couldn’t comment on what it integrates or discards from the original text, but The Jungle Book is good enough to stand on its own merits.

Part of that is due to the cast, who all turn in energetic performances that never seem to suffer from being overshadowed by previous renditions. Ben Kingsley is a regal Bagheera, Bill Murray is an appropriately affable Baloo, and Christopher Walken is unexpectedly well-suited to the role of King Louie.
And it should be said that newcomer Neel Sethi is phenomenal, putting in a performance that makes the computer generated scenery and characters around him look real.

It also goes without saying that the film looks fantastic, with the animals rendered in just the right way so they skip past the Uncanny Valley, retaining enough stylisation to resemble the integration of live action actors and animated characters seen in films like Pete’s Dragon and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The film never tries to make you think a real life Bear is in the frame, it contents itself with making you think that Mowgli is undergoing an emotionally fulfilling journey.

Of course there are problems with the film, which hopefully aren’t present in the upcoming live action remake of Beauty and the Beast that Disney is hoping to release in the coming years. There’s a tedious sequence where Baloo tells Mowgli he’s tired of the boy and that they were never truly friends, which everyone in their right mind knows is a lie. This and a couple of other problematic storytelling decisions, in particular the reveal of Mowgli’s backstory, drag the film down when it can ill-afford it.
And while I was delighted at the two musical numbers that made it into the film, the second isn’t as well-explained or well-integrated into the film as the first is.

Perhaps it’s just relief at seeing a film that isn’t Batman v Superman, but I’m disposed to feel kindly towards a well-made film with its heart in the right place.
It’s not a film without its problems, but I’d still recommend you check it out while it’s still in theaters.
And for anyone who’s feeling cynical, don’t worry, there’s an entire Summer Blockbuster season awaiting us.