THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016)
Contrary to whatever impression I may have given, I am not opposed to remakes. What I am opposed for is the plethora of remakes that 2016 has unleashed or waiting to be unleashed. You have either now or upcoming remakes of Ghostbusters, The Magnificent Seven, Ben-Hur: all certified classics that already have set high standards and are beloved by both critics and fans. Disney is joining the remake-mania with two films: the upcoming Pete's Dragon and the live-action version of The Jungle Book. While I have never seen Pete's Dragon, I have seen the Disney version of The Jungle Book; now that I have seen its remake, I can say that this is how remakes should be made. The Jungle Book manages the neat trick of honoring the original film while marking its own stamp on the Rudyard Kipling story.
Sticking close to the animated film, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a man-cub raised by wolves in the jungle. Most of the other animals do a double take when they see Mowgli, but for the most part they aren't concerned...so long as he doesn't bring Man's greatest weapon: the Red Flower (also known as fire). Raised by his adopted mother Raksha (Lupita N'yongo), and trained by his mentor, the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), Mowgli seems happy away from the Man Village.
A drought strikes the jungle, and as part of jungle law a truce is announced where no animal can attack another. They have to all share what little water there is, and all the animals, from the smallest to the largest gather to drink. It is here where Shere Khan (Idris Elba), the scarred tiger, makes clear that he is coming after Mowgli, his hatred for humans insatiable. Both Raksha and Bagheera fear for him, and decide the only safety for Mowgli is for him to be returned to the Man Village and live among his own kind. Mowgli doesn't want to go, but soon it becomes clear he puts his pack in danger should he remain.
Bagheera begins to escort him to the Man Village, stopping only to pay homage to the elephants, the oldest of the jungle creatures, who created their world. On their way Shere Khan waylays them, and while the panther and the tiger fight it out, Mowgli escapes. He nearly gets devoured by the hypnotic snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), until he's rescued by an unexpected source: the sloth bear Baloo (Bill Murray). Baloo shows Mowgli to enjoy The Bare Necessities, and Mowgli uses his 'man-tricks' to get at the honey Baloo so loves (the former does all the work, the latter reaps all the rewards). Bagheera finds them and is not amused by their antics.
No time for reproaching, as Bagheera finds Mowgli's true heart and wisdom when he rescues a baby elephant using 'man-tricks'. Just when things appear to be settling down though, the monkeys kidnap Mowgli and take him to King Louie (Christopher Walken), who sees in Mowgli a chance to 'be like man' by obtaining what he most desires: the secret of the Red Flower. Mowgli, trained in animal ways, has never made fire and knows nothing of it. King Louie will not be denied, and is adamant on the subject. Baloo and Bagheera attempt a rescue, which is successful until Mowgli learns of his adoptive father's death at the hands of Shere Khan. Determined to avenge him, he goes back to face off against his bitterest rival, bringing the Red Flower with him.
A battle ensues for the future of the jungle itself, fire raging all around and the animals, despite their fear of it, uniting to thwart Shere Khan. However, it is ultimately a battle between the tiger and the man cub that will determine the future of them all.
The Jungle Book is an absolutely beautiful film in every way. It is beautiful visually, with simply breathtaking cinematography by Bill Pope (whom I'd love to see get an Oscar nomination, if not the award itself). It's such an inviting and beautiful world that we soon forget that it is all CGI. The jungle feels so real, so natural, that I soon forgot that it was fake. Granted, sometimes you could see the CGI work (nothing is perfect), but the visuals are so beautiful, so real, so immersive that one can be forgiven for slipping into this world without questioning its authenticity.
The same can be said for John Debney's score, which like the cinematography should be given serious Oscar consideration. In turns menacing, soft, amusing, and thrilling, his score is another highlight of the film.
Jon Favreau, who began as an actor and still does work in front of the screen, proves himself to be a better director. Not only is The Jungle Book so immersive in its world, which Favreau oversaw so well, but he must also convince us that animals can talk. Within minutes of the film's start, we soon take for granted that Mowgli can, to coin a phrase, Talk to the Animals. It all feels so perfectly natural that audiences never question it. The film is that well-formed within its world.
As for the voice performances, I don't think we could have asked for a better cast. Bill Murray as Baloo? Come on, Bill Murray is a LEGEND, and he makes Baloo this delightful, lazy, but ultimately loving and courageous figure. Kingsley brings gravitas as the wise panther Bagheera, and while sadly Johansson was in just one scene as the villainous python Kaa, she still left a positive impact.
As a digress, Justin Marks' adaptation of the Kipling book gives us just enough nods to the animated film to please those who know it without being overt or making excessive call-outs (Murray's singing of The Bare Necessities being a bit of an exception). Kaa ends her talk with Mowgli by telling him, "Trust in me", which is the song Kaa sang while hypnotizing the man-cub. In the film's closing credits, Walken's King Louie gives us his Walkenesque rendition of I Wanna Be Like You, almost as if telling us that despite the fears and thrills and even terror of the final battle, all is well and the filmmakers all hope you were entertained.
Walken, like Murray, is a legend, and makes the formerly merry monarch villainous, even scary. He cannot match the frights courtesy of Elba, his chilling, cold, murderous Shere Khan coming close to being as menacing as James Earl Jones' turn in the Star Wars trilogy.
If the film has flaws, it is via Sethi's performance. It was at times slightly amateurish, but given he's a child and just starting out we can cut him some slack. It's a very positive step that the film cast an actual Indian to play an Indian. As I said, sometimes the CGI work was obvious, but again, a minor, minor complaint.
The Jungle Book, by taking the story seriously and by nodding to the original while still shaping its own vision for the story, is by far the only remake so far this year to work, to be something truly special, even slightly original. It serves to compliment the 1967 animated version while not trying to outdo it or compete with it. Every person who wants to remake a beloved film should take a lesson from The Jungle Book: don't be a slave to the original but respect the source material and your audience.
Keep to The Bare Necessities...
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