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Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Review of The Jungle Book (2016)

The best music covers tend to be songs that improve on a song with great lyrics but mediocre music behind it. Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” has amazing lyrics because it’s a Bob Dylan song, but so-so music behind it, well, because it’s a Bob Dylan song. Jimi Hendrix was able to take those lyrics and, using his incredible talent as a guitar player, give Dylan’s lyrics the appropriate music they deserved. The Byrds version of Dylan’s “Tambourine Man” is a similar situation. The same rule for remaking songs should also be the same rule for remaking movies. A movie should only be remade if the original is subpar, but has some good stuff in it.

Disney’s 1967 animated classic The Jungle Book is not a good movie, certainly not by today’s standards. I have fond memories of the movie from when I watched it as a kid, but kids are dumb and their tastes can’t be trusted. Re-watching the 1967 film, I realized what a jumbled mess it is. The film starts off on the right foot by having the panther Bagheera watch over a “mancub” Mowgli that he found when the boy was just a newborn that he then has to protect from the evil tiger Shere Khan. However, the film quickly devolves as Bagheera and Mowgli set off on their journey out of the jungle and away from Shere Khan. There’s an extended scene between Mowgli and a pack of elephants that makes absolutely no sense, Mowgli meets a group of vultures that weresupposed to be voiced by The Beatles, and Bagheera comes and goes as he pleases.

Disney’s live action version takes the same basic premise of their 1967 film, Bagheera and Mowgli journey to find humans to escape the wrath of Shere Khan, and makes a coherent story out of it. The 1967 animated movie is like a Bob Dylan song, a sub-par whole with excellent parts in it, and the 2016 version is like Jimi Hendrix who made an excellent whole that improved on the good parts of the original.

After Mowgli (played wonderfully by newcomer Neel Sethi) is banished by the wolf pack that raised him due to threats made against the pack by Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba), Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) and Mowgli travel to the human village on the outskirts of the jungle so that Mowgli can live among his own kind. Along the way he meets the snake Kaa (voiced by Scarlet Johansson), a big cuddly bear named Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray), and a huge orangutan who goes by King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken). Mowgli must overcome obstacles when he meets each character along his journey, but ultimately he must face and overcome Shere Khan after the tiger kills the wolf pack leader that raised him. The story of 2016’s The Jungle Book is pretty simple and straightforward, and it’s that simplicity that makes the film work as well as it does. Characters move from Point A to Point B with Point C without strains in logic or continuity, which is something the 1967 version can’t say.

The one thing I thought the 1967 version could have on the 2016 version is that this story seems perfect for an animated film and not so much for a live action film, as I thought it would be difficult to ground this world into any sort of realism. However, I was mistaken. You are immediately immersed into this world full of taking animals and you never doubt what you’re seeing for a second.

Further, the CGI on every single animal is incredible. These animals look like real animals, yet you never for one second doubt the cartoonish action their taking. I even bought into Baloo singing “The Bare Necessities”. By introducing Baloo humming the song earlier and having the full song play later over a montage, its use in the 2016 version works surprisingly well.

The one thing I didn’t buy was King Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You”. I know the film hired Christopher Walken mainly so he could sing the song, but I didn’t feel it worked within the context of the movie. If the film had made King Louie more charismatic and have him be that friendly-over-the-top evil character like say Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds then I thought the song would have worked. But by having the character be a straight up bully, the song choice was odd.

That being said, I am nitpicking. Frankly there isn’t a whole lot to dislike about Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. Favreau’s action/adventure films can be hit or miss. Sometimes you get jumbled messes like Iron Man 2 or Cowboys vs. Aliens. Other times you get a gem like Iron Man. The Jungle Book falls confidently in the latter. It has a story to tell and it successfully tells that story. If you’re going to show your kid any version of The Jungle Book, show them this live-action version, and feel free to throw your 1967 animated version in the trash. 



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