MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Adventure Fantasy/ Stars: Neel Sethi; Voices of: Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Garry Shandling, Brighton Rose, Jon Favreau, Sam Raimi, Russell Peters, Madeleine Favreau, Sara Arrington, Emjay Anthony, Max Favreau, Chloe Hechter, Asher Blinkoff, Knox Gagnon, Sasha Schrieber, Kai Schrieber, Dee Bradley Baker, Artie Esposito, Sean Johnson, Allan Trautman/ Runtime: 106 minutes
I think it’s safe to start this review off by saying that as much as my other reviews may suggest otherwise, a fair bit of who I am to say nothing my childhood was influenced by Disney movies and TV shows. By that I don’t just mean material like Gargoyles, Darkwing Duck, Duck Tales, Goof Troop that was specific to growing up in the 90s. I also mean classic Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy cartoons like “Thru the Mirror” and “How to Fish” respectively as well as classic animated films from Disney like The Black Cauldron, Melody Time, Saludos Amigos, Alice in Wonderland, and The Three Caballeros to name but a few. Along with those though was the 1967 animated film that is The Jungle Book. Yet despite appreciating it as a wonderful animated film to say nothing of how it was one of the last Disney films Walt Disney himself personally supervised before he died, I did feel that there was perhaps more that could be done with this material. This is because, for all the good that the animated film has going for it, it really doesn’t have much in the way of a solid narrative and is instead more a set of vignettes tied together with several memorable music numbers. As a result, when I found out that as part of their live action renaissance Disney would be giving us a live action Jungle Book and it would be helmed by the director of the first and second Iron Man and Elf I was quite intrigued. It wasn’t until after the first trailer and the announcement of the cast playing the specific parts however that I started to really think “ok this might be something pretty special after all.” I am thrilled to say that was one diagnosis I was right on target about. That is because the 2016 Jungle Book isn’t just better in many respects than the original. It is also a slice of cinematic pie that, through its incredible cast and visual effects work that is perhaps the very dictionary definition of magic, is also a riveting tribute to the power of storytelling that Walt himself would have loved very much and just an incredible cinematic experience that you and your family will cherish time and time again.
The plot is as follows: Based on the stories by iconic author Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book takes us to an unnamed (what else?) jungle in the country of India that is seemingly like any other jungle except for perhaps one distinguishable factor. That of course being that every single animal in this jungle can talk. To that end, we see that our story in this world is one which deals primarily with a young boy by the name of Mowgli. A boy who, due to being abandoned as a baby in the jungle, has been a welcome part of a pack of wolves and mentored by a stoic yet loving panther named Bagheera practically his whole life. As our story gets underway however we see that things are about to change for our intrepid man-cub as he is called by the jungle’s denizens. This is because an infamously fearsome and ferocious tiger by the name of Shere Khan has discovered Mowgli is living in the jungle and, driven both by a homicidal rage and just general hatred towards the species that is man, has demanded Mowgli leave the jungle and never return. Realizing that he is no longer safe in the jungle, we watch as Mowgli and Bagheera set out on a journey to return him to the nearest “man village”. A journey that will reveal secrets from Mowgli’s past, and see Mowgli cross paths with a host of jungle critters including a friendly bear named Baloo, an all-knowing and ferocious snake named Kaa, and a vicious mobster-esque monkey named Louie all whilst being placed on a collision course with Shere Khan that will see Mowgli finally be forced to make a stand in regards to just where he feels in his heart he truly deserves to call home…
Now more than anything else in this slice of cinematic pie that deserves praise is the fact that this film’s narrative is one that, when you remove all the superficialities, is one which revolves around the universal understood concept of trying to figure out one’s identity and/or place in the world. Yes there is an amazing world, there’s an incredible cast of supporting characters, and the main character himself is quite endearing. Yet it is my distinct opinion what really helps this slice of cinematic pie start to soar is how it manages to tell a story that at its heart is dealing with a universal idea in a way that is not only accessible to everyone both young and old, but also done in the loving and very human manner that Disney himself did in a lot of his early animated films. I mean Pinocchio talked about honesty/integrity, Dumbo talked about accepting others regardless of their differences, Peter Pan talked about the power of belief, and even Alice in Wonderland talked about the potential pratfalls to letting your imagination get the best of you. Suffice it to say then that by touching on the universal idea of finding your way in the world and of finding your own family when you’ve never had one to call your own before this film is not only presenting audiences with some incredibly powerful themes, but also showing that it understands what made a lot of those early Disney animated films such masterpieces in the first place. With that being said though, the big thing though that everyone and their mother (or so it felt like) could not stop talking about were the visual effects in this slice of cinematic pie. In a word dear reader: they are absolutely flawless. I know that might seem like high praise coming from a stoic critic like myself, but when you watch this slice of cinematic pie for yourself I promise that you will see what I am talking about and agree with me. I mean if you did not know that this wasn’t filmed in a real jungle you would start to ask where in the world this was filmed (trust me I literally spent 2 days trying to find out just that before I learned otherwise). Indeed this jungle setting not only looks beautiful, but more importantly it looks absolutely real in all the best ways possible (this of course coming from a guy who may or may not have spent a day on Google Earth just making sure). I mean hats off to Jon Favreau and his team for not only making one heck of a movie, but for also making one jaw-droppingly incredible locale for it to be set in as well that future slices of cinematic pie could learn a thing or 4 from. Suffice it to say then that when this movie won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects I can say that was one award well-earned and then some.
Now all of the aforementioned technical ingredients may be quite the incredible exterior for this slice of cinematic pie to work with, but if this film’s cast was not up to operating on the same level of magic and caliber of excellence then this film would only operate half as well as it ultimately does. Thankfully, film helmer Favreau has a knack for casting that is second to none. As a result, this film’s cast manage to fit their respective roles to a t and as a result do some truly extraordinary work. This all starts with relative newcomer to the world of movie magic Neel Sethi in the role of Mowgli and he manages to do an extraordinary job. Indeed not only does he actually look like the animated version of the character brought to life, but he also does a great job at giving us a look at a young boy who is simply just trying to find his way in the world and how life, courtesy of a psychopathic tiger, forces him to examine not only who he is meant to be, but also where he is meant to be and who his true family is as well. Honestly I don’t know why this kid hasn’t been able to get any work since this slice of cinematic pie came out in 2016, but I think it’s time that changed. The supporting voice/motion-capture cast in this made up of veteran actors in this also do incredible work. This starts with the spot-on casting of Bill Murray as Baloo and he is terrific. Indeed not only does Murray bring his distinct dry wit to the part, but he also brings a bit of himself in the form of his easygoing persona as well thus giving us a take on Baloo that is a true delight. We also get wonderful work from Ben Kingsley who gives Bagheera a wonderful degree of both nobility and stoicism respectively, Lupita Nyong’o who is appropriately protective and motherly in her role of Mowgli’s wolf mom Raksha, and Idris Elba who is positively terrifying and a true force of nature to be reckoned with in his take on the role of Shere Khan. I mean don’t get me wrong: I did love what George Sanders brought to the role in terms of giving us a Shere Khan who was charming yet ferocious and deadly all at once. However, after seeing what Elba brought to the part I’m willing to claim this take as the more definitive portrayal. Now I did enjoy the distinct take on Kaa (voiced this go-around by Scarlett Johannson) this film brought to us, but at the same I did also feel like the character was extremely underutilized. This of course brings me to the giant monkey in the room: King Louie as played by Christopher Walken and this was perhaps the only thing in the entire movie I am not bursting with praise over. This isn’t because I think Christopher Walken is a bad actor; actually I think he is one of the finest underrated talents the silver screen has ever been blessed with. I’m just not a fan of the direction this particular take chose to go with this character…..and I’m also not a fan of Christopher Walken singing. I mean in the 1967 version King Louie is this delightfully unhinged monkey king who has a particularly memorable song and dance number with Mowgli and an in-disguise Baloo who has come to save Mowgli. That being said, I get that this one was meant to be a bit darker than that one so that whole levity was about to go out the window, but did we really have to make him out to be this almost Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now-type warlord? That and if this is the direction you wish to take the character then please for the love of God don’t let him sing “I Wanna Be Like You”. I mean Christopher Walken is a heck of a dancer (see the music video for Weapon of Choice by Fatboy Slim if you don’t believe me), but in regards to his singing talents it really just sounds like he is simply saying the lyrics rather than trying to actually sing it (maybe he needed some more cowbell perhaps?). Any way you look at it however these are just minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things.
All in all wow. That is really and truly at the end of the day the best one-word description that I could ever hope to give a slice of cinematic pie like this movie lovers. I mean I know that by and large the live action remake game that Disney has been playing with a lot of their animated classics has been hit or miss from the start, but I can safely say that their 2016 live action updating of The Jungle Book is most assuredly a hit in all the best ways possible. Indeed from magical work in the visual effects department, the integration of a theme that will resonate with audiences of all ages in a manner that would make Disney himself proud, and a cast that, by and large, is truly amazing and manage to fit their respective roles to a t, this is one slice of cinematic pie that I can honestly say is one that you and your pack will want to add to your library and watch time and time again. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Jungle Book “2016” a solid 4 out of 5.