Review: The Jungle Book

It might as well have paid off watching the original 1967 animated film on the Disney channel last week.

What was really telling was how Disney himself instructed his animators to practically NOT follow Rudyard Kipling’s original work in that one.

Not necessarily in the case of Jon Favreau’s recent live-action take of the animated movie…at best, it manages to bridge the content gap between Kipling’s classic/s and the big-screen animated version.  For one thing, they did keep most of the central characters, such as Mowgli the “man-cub” and the various animals that stand in for his (absent) parents.

You have the wolves Akela (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) representing tradition (“the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is in the pack” – Akela), Baloo the bear (voiced by a top-notch Bill Murray) representing open-mindedness and Bagheera the black panther (voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley, in fine form as usual) representing Mowgli’s own conscience, a furred and feline Jiminy Cricket.  All of them take turns in guarding Mowgli from the impending threat of Shere Khan the tiger (voiced by Idris Elba), who took the life of the boy’s father after he burned the big cat in the face with a torch (bearing the “red flower”, fire, the bane of all jungle-dwellers).

The tone is quite dark, but thankfully not oppressingly Batman v. Superman Dawn of Justice dark; around half of the film takes place at night (mainly for logistic reasons…more of that later).  Newcomer Neel Sethi’s Mowgli is quite the natural, whether it be deferring to wolf tradition not to use his “human tricks” when hunting and drinking, or using said “tricks” in the service of Baloo’s con (hibernating – in a jungle without winter???)

Just to let you know, this is NOT the first time Disney took a swing at a live-action version of the books:

Directed by Stephen (The Mummy) Sommers, the 1994 version has a grown-up Mowgli returning to the jungle of his youth along with a human fiancee and a gaggle of Mighty Whitey hunter-types; this has more to do with the upcoming The Legend of Tarzan than its source material.  In Favreau’s treatment, though, the only other humans you can make out are a fleeting glimpse of Mowgli’s human father as he attempts to protect the future man-cub from the rampage of Shere Khan and some silhouettes from the man-village illuminated by the “Red Flower”.

There is even a 1989  Japanese anime series that appears to hew more on the Kipling books than the Disney films.

Even while maintaining the lighter family-friendly tones of the 1967 animated film – including the signature songs “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You (The Monkey Song)” – this reboot takes precious care not to insult the intelligence of today’s kids. Great care has been taken by the animators to ensure that the main animal characters’ voices sync well with the actors’ deliveries, thereby preventing any case of uncanny valley;  you got to thank them for not giving the vultures or the elephants (who can’t forget the Beatles-esque vultures or Colonel Hathi’s march from the 1967 film???) any speaking parts, since it would be difficult to convincingly animate avian beaks and pachyderm mouths (with the trunk and tusks) to effectively duplicate human lip movement.

Interestingly, the vultures in the 1967 film were supposed to be actually portrayed by the Fab Four, but Disney feared that an ostensibly ’60s rock number would distract from the film’s timeless appeal, and John Lennon did not want the group to be associated with the House of Mouse.

Christopher Walken nearly walks way with the show with his performance of Disney canon immigrant King Louie, adapted up from the late Louis Prima’s orang-outang to a King Kong-esque Gigantopithecus Blackii (an extinct ape specie cited to be an ancestor of said orang-outangs) .  He lives it up like some simian sultan on an abandoned temple, along with an ample supply of papayas pawpaws and looted treasures supplied to him by his loyal armies of monkeys, the Bandar-Log (in fairness, the Bandar-Log were in the the Kipling books)

What makes this production truly AMAZING is how realistic the actions of the animals are rendered – from the rodents and scaly ant-eaters to the tigers and elephants – along with the photo-realistic execution of a lushly-detailed Indian jungle all in a confined space of a Los Angeles, CA building.  Apparently, there are the logistic and legalistic problems of having a child actor work with feral animals, especially if they were to do actual location shoots; the wonders of CGI swoop in recreate the thick foilage and stunning variety of fauna on set.  Aside from avoiding child-endagerment violations, the production opts to employ carefully-rendered CGI creatures to placate animal-rights activists.

Heck, who’d have known that honey (or to be more precise, beeswax) can be a handy salve against bee stings???

Such is the knowing care taken by the filmmakers in delivering this thoroughly satisfying adaptation.

 

 

 

 

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