When the new live-action The Jungle Book movie was announced, I was skeptical, to say the least. The cast was compelling, but the idea of a reboot…
of one of my favorite childhood Disney movies was worrying. Despite being almost 50 years after the release of the original, a reboot, although now live-action, seemed like a desperate, unoriginal, money-grab. While I was convinced by trailer #2 that it would be good, I am glad to say that the movie blew my expectations away.
The Jungle Book did everything right. We all know the story of The Jungle Book, but this movie took the themes that make the original great and connected them to make a character-driven and well-paced masterpiece. What a flawless depiction of a boy who wants to be the best he can be while still embracing the family he loves and not giving up his friends just because he’s different. A boy raised by wolves, somewhere between man and cub, Mowgli, through the movie, sees the tricks he uses to learn the jungle turn from rejected to accepted. It’s a movie of transition, acceptance, and finding ones place in society. Just because he’s different does not mean he’s not part of the pack, and while the characters struggle with this notion at first, the steadfast Raksha, Bagheera, and Baloo grow alongside Mowgli’s character.
One of the crowning themes in the movie is the relationship of Bagheera and Baloo and their individual and combined influences on Mowgli. Bagheera is uncompromising, and while this is sometimes to the point of frustration, his actions are absolutely justified by his fearless protection of and unwavering love for Mowgli. While Baloo and Mowgli’s relationship begins differently than Bagheera and Mowgli’s, Baloo learns to love the boy, and the isolation he offers from the wolf pack opens up doors of opportunity and acceptance.
Bagheera and Baloo get off to a rocky start, in which Bagheera accuses Baloo of being lazy and not caring or being able to protect Mowgli. The movie does a wonderful job of depicting the exact moment this condescension turns into respect. Bagheera’s surprise at Baloo’s disregard for his own safety when they are crossing the river flips their relationship from testy to Double Dad Defense™ (- Kung Fu Panda 3). That Baloo does not run ahead and leave Bagheera behind translates to the cliff-climbing scene, during which Bagheera helps Baloo climb rather than leaving him behind. This newfound cohesiveness and respect helps both Bagheera and Baloo grow, as Bagheera learns to accept Mowgli’s man strengths and Baloo understands how to do work for what he loves. Their different parenting styles (nitpicky dad and carefree dad) play off strengths and weaknesses both while not ignoring the worries parents have for their kids, all of which eventually push Mowgli to take his fate into his own hands (“You both knew”).
The integration of the wolf pack, from Akela’s strictness to Raksha’s love, into Mowgli’s experience as a man-cub perfectly shows how Mowgli’s pack nature and individuality can be complementary rather than mutually exclusive (in the same way Bagheera and Baloo emphasize different aspects of being oneself and living as oneself). These overarching themes bring the movie in an entire circle.
The antagonist characters, Kaa, King Louie, and Shere Khan, all play distinctive roles in carving out who exactly Mowgli is to himself, to his famliy, and to the jungle. The fact that Mowgli is human connects all three of these characters. The first introduced, Shere Khan provides a look at both the evils of man and the oppressive, hierarchal nature of the animal kingdom. Hating man, Shere Khan sets in motion the movie’s main conflict. Kaa, on the other hand, is entirely removed from Mowgli’s humanhood, but she provides the look into Mowgli’s history, and how his father protects “his cub” from danger. King Louie emphasizes Mowgli’s role by emphasizing even more the Red Flower of fire and its power. Through these interactions, the story is progressed while slowly world-building the attitudes of the animals towards man and fire.
Bagheera’s ultimate “You are not a wolf, so fight him like a man.” sums up the movie in a single statement. Everything Bagheera has learned from Baloo, everything Mowgli has learned from them both, and everything the movie stands for comes together in this climatic moment of realization.
Incredibly realistic animation, this movie is hyper-realistic and flawlessly merges the live-action Mowgli with animated animals. One of the standout scenes is that of King Louie’s movement, when his flabby body ripples with every movement. The motion animation was incredibly well done, with nothing looking out of place. Mowgli’s integration into the animated environment is an accreditation to the special effects and animation crews.
Jon Favreau could not have shot a better movie. Well thought-out, with fluid movement and panning shots that allow the audience a look at the beautiful environment without forgetting the characters, his direction brings the jungle and our characters together. My two favorite shots in the movie are during the final fight. The first, when Baloo and Shere Khan clash in the middle of bystanding animals, and the second when Bagheera chases down Shere Khan, slowly gains on him, and pounces. The anticipation created by such large but focused shots calls attention to everything the audience must see and wants to see together.
Neel Sethi enthusiastically jumps into and absolutely owns his first role as the only human seen on screen. Cute, bubbly, but capable of being serious and filled with fighting spirit, Sethi masters the character of Mowgli.
A commendable crew of voice actors for the rest of the characters makes the animal characters come to life. Without the incredible performances of Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johnasson, Christopher Walken, and others, the world would fall flat.
Bagheera (Kingsley) and Baloo (Murray)’s voices fit their characters perfectly, as both have powerful but peaceful voices, fitting for father-figures. Raksha (Nyong’o)’s voice is smooth and motherly, and she fulfills the role of a caring, worrying mother with ease.
Shere Khan (Elba) would not be the same powerful, growling, and fearsome character he is without Elba’s voice. Personally, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Kaa, who was mesmerizing without being seductive in the original. I can say now, that I have been both proven right about how powerfully this cast voice-acts, and proven wrong about a female Kaa. She fits perfectly with the Kaa scene, and makes it seductive only metaphorically. King Louie (Walken)’s booming and intimidating stature is matched by Walken’s performance.
The movie’s sound track was incredibly well done. From very apparent Indian influence during the pounding chase scenes, to the quiet piano version of “Bare Necessities” during the fun of Mowgli’s time with Baloo, the music consistently creates a perfectly well-toned mood. The two featured songs in the movie, “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” were both very well done as songs.
“Bare Necessities” is a fulfilling throwback to my childhood, lyrics and vocals reminding the audience of the fun-loving, worry-free nature of simplicity. Playing often during Mowgli’s time with Baloo, it sums up their relationship and the opening of Mowgli’s mind to the possibility of being man and dwelling in the jungle.
My only complaint with the movie was King Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You.” While the transition into the song was subtle and the song was well-done, it simply felt out of place with King Louie being a gigantic ape. The goofy character from the original mixed well with the presence of a song, but the intimidating scene in this movie was cut short and contrasted sharply with the sudden song. While it was eventually easy to fall into the song and get used to it, the first jarring disconnect when Louie begins singing is hard to shake.
I might even like this movie better than the original I saw as a kid. And that’s really saying something. Cast incredibly well with strong and decisive direction, The Jungle Book (2016) absolutely doesn’t disappoint. It does exactly the opposite. Prepare to be wow’ed.