Review: Disney’s The Jungle Book (2016)

Over the last several years, we’ve heard bloggers lament the death of Hollywood originality in a deluge of remakes. Disney, while taking the world by storm with its Marvel and Star Wars acquisitions, has played no stranger to the trend, in that it has been “remaking” its animated classics as live-action, tentpole films, each retaining the basic story and aesthetic of what we remember with some slight twists to keep us on our toes. While, in my opinion, ‘Alice In Wonderland’ and ‘Maleficent’ were forgettable, last year’s ‘Cinderella’ made quite the impression on me as a viewer.

Alongside this trend, we see a separate industry progression of CGI-characters in live-action becoming more and more believable, going beyond just distractingly slipping through the background, as they are now carrying full films as leads, such as ‘Avatar’ and ‘Dawn of the Planet of The Apes’. Enter ‘The Jungle Book’, a film that I think is safe to say couldn’t have been effectively made until now. Of course, we’ve seen this story before, but there have always been necessary concessions made, due to the difficulties of conveying the animal characters. No longer.

Here, we have a fully realized tale that closely mirrors the plot of the 1967 animated classic (as expected) with a few tweaks to give it some depth that the almost 50 year old cartoon just didn’t have (sorry, it’s true). We see a selfless Mowgli, increasingly aware of the dangers his humanity can bring to the jungle but also the joy and wonder his ingenuity and spark can grant others. To me, The Jungle Book has always resonated as an allegory for the potential of the individual and how the different motivations of the world can affect it for good or bad. Whether it’s through exposure to the ill-meaning predatory impulses of some or the friendly voluntary exploitation granted to others, Mowgli’s journey can be truly transcendent material, albeit easily graspable in nature and almost archetypal in characterization (hence the kid focus). I felt like the classic songs were the real meat of the old toon, but here, the journey, emotionally and symbolically, is key and resonant for all ages.

With incredible tech on display, it would all be empty without great actors embodying the characters. No one disappoints. Being a huge fan of many of the actors included, each made the characters believable, which is a credit to their voicework as well as countless animators. The songs felt tacked on, really, but both had a fresh spin on the old and didn’t take anything away from the film. The performance of Mowgli, played by newcomer Neel Sethi, was made all the better, knowing that the first-time actor was acting by himself much of the time. Everything, presentation-wise, is near flawless, and I appreciated the movie broadening out to include many different animal species beyond just the recognizable characters known to all.

Thematically, I connected with the push-pull between the concepts of law vs. grace, destiny of behavior vs. faith in the individual. Mowgli was lovingly accepted by the wolves, but Shere Khan shown legitimate reason to fear the possibility of what could happen if a man was allowed to grow up amongst there animals. Fear-mongering or not, he was compelling and understandable, making him a compelling villain, brought to life so well by Idris Elba. Overall, the journey of Mowgli on-screen served as an interesting lens to look at such concepts. It made it more than just a “kid’s movie”. Which, by the way, it succeeded at, as well; my 7-year-old daughter saw it twice in one weekend. Bravo, Disney.

SCORE: 9 (out of 10)

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