The Jungle Books, part 2

We saw the new, live-action The Jungle Book over the weekend. Actually, I saw it about one and a half times, but I think I’ll save that for a whole ‘nother post. So, instead of an anecdote that segues into the review, we’ll just hit the ground running (much like Mowgli).

Disney’s The Jungle Book is a superb blend of their 1967 animated classic and Rudyard Kipling’s original stories. I don’t know whether the credit for that should go to director Jon Favreau or screenwriter Justin Marks, but there’s plenty of kudos to go around. This newest film draws upon Disney’s earlier Jungle Book for the characterizations and the plot. Mowgli, threatened by the tiger Shere Khan, is being escorted out of his jungle home by Bagheera, during which journey he meets Kaa (who hypnotizes him), Baloo (who befriends him), and King Louie (who wants something from him). The rest of the bits that add detail to the story or flesh out the world, however, — the Peace Rock and the Water Truce, Ikki the Hedgehog, and even the scars and scrapes on Mowgli’s body from growing up in a jungle playing with wolves — are all drawn from Kipling’s tales.

The first time I attempted to watch the movie, I found myself nonplussed at how it was borrowing so heavily from both sources without capturing the (very different) essences of either. A lot of that attitude probably had something to do with the fact that I was often distracted from what was happening on the screen and, indeed, spent a lot of time out of the theater entirely. When I had the opportunity to see it again without having to divide my attention, I not only enjoyed it much more but also gained an appreciation for how the filmmakers gave a new tone and depth to the Disney version of this story simply by incorporating elements from Kipling’s writing.

Although the story may be from the animated film and the world it takes place in is from Kipling’s books, the main character who moves through both is a Mowgli unique to this version. This Mowgli is a boy who has been raised by wolves but can’t shake his tool-using, problem-solving human nature. This use of “tricks” separates him from the rest of the jungle inhabitants even more than his relative lack of speed, strength, or agility. This is a Mowgli who has more self-doubt than Kipling’s protagonist but grows to become more active and confident than the boy we see in the animated feature. In the cartoon version, Mowgli is [SPOILER] enticed into the man-village when he first lays eyes on a female of his species while Kipling’s Mowgli [SPOILER] largely rejects the ways of men until he is much older. The Mowgli we have here takes a third way by [SPOILER] staying in the jungle but embracing the human qualities that make him unique.

And I have to say that the kid who played Mowgli in this new movie deserves an Oscar. I’m not saying he’s Lawrence Olivier, but there isn’t a single moment that he doesn’t sell the idea of being in the jungle, conversing with animals. I’m pretty sure at no point during filming did Neel Sethi, the actor, actually exchange lines with a real talking bear but you’d never know it from watching him.

I’m sorry to say that I was less happy with Baloo’s performance. I’m fond of Bill Murray as an actor, so I’ll toss out the idea that maybe the problem wasn’t his delivery of the dialog as much as the CGI bear’s inability to capture some essential element of his expression or mannerisms or a twinkle in his eye. However, Bill’s acting has gotten a lot more subtle and reigned in than it was back in the days of Stripes and Ghostbusters… Whatever the reason for it, I just could not warm up to his stammering, uncertain Baloo. Phil Harris gave us a Baloo who was boisterous, jovial, and as full of life as he was easy going. Murray’s Baloo is just a little too sleepy for me.

The one bright exception is his rendition of “The Bare Necessities.” His performance of the song is so much livelier than his delivery of Baloo’s spoken dialog that I had to triple-check that it was actually Bill Murray who sang it.

The songs surprised me, though. The world of the film may have talking animals, but it didn’t feel like a world that naturally has musical numbers. It’s easy to let it get away with “The Bare Necessities”; you can buy that Baloo’s the kind of bear who sings and it works in that sequence. When Christopher Walken’s King Louie breaks into “I Wan’na Be Like You,” however, my suspension of disbelief suffered a bad sprain. Walken does a fine job with the song, make no mistake. But his King Louie is in the middle of putting some serious, Vito Corleone-style pressure on Mowgli, and as good as the song is, it only serves to pull you out of the scene. Strangely, Kaa’s “Trust In Me” (which gets the “Most Improved” award for the soundtrack) could have been included more organically than any of the other musical numbers but instead only plays over part of the closing credits.

These are minor complaints, in truth. The film is fun, exciting, and even moving at times (I found I had something in my eye during the scene where Mowgli says good-bye to Mother Wolf). Although there were scary parts, RU and MeToo both proclaimed it to be good. The Wife and Granma Cake agreed.

I’m pleased to say that, as with Cinderella, Disney has succeeded in crafting a terrific live-action update. It works because it is heavily steeped in the source material while adding depth and vividness. You and your kids should go see it.