I remember watching the original 1967 Jungle Book when I was a kid. I’m not sure how many times I watched it, but I have vague memories ingrained in my head of sitting on the couch, watching Mowgli’s adventures. I had a complicated relationship with the movie to say the least. I adored Baloo, was terrified of the monkeys, and loved the songs. On the other hand, I thought King Louie was weird, Shere Khan never struck me as a scary villain, but Kaa was terrifying. The vultures had funny accents, and the girl seducing Mowgli at the end was weird.
But I remember the movie vividly, so when I saw the commercials for the new Jungle Book (2016), I was not impressed. Where was the fun? Where was the color and singing and personality?
Then some of my favorite reviewers started raving about the film. It quickly became one of my top anticipated movies of the year. And that’s how I found myself sitting with my sister and friend in the theater the Friday it opened, waiting expectantly for an engrossing experience, as the critics had promised. Maybe I could replace my fuzzy childhood memories with a new, fresh one.
The plot of The Jungle Book is simple enough. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a human child who is found in an Indian jungle by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Bagheera gives Mowgli to a pack of wolves to be raised. When Mowgli is older though, a tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba) swears to kill Mowgli, prompting Bagheera to take Mowgli to the man-village. However, their mission is interrupted by the cast of colorful characters they meet along the way.
When I started watching the film, it took me a while to get used to the hyper-realistic CGI used. It reminded me of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, which has photo-realistic scenery, and cartoony characters. That serviced the story well, and I liked it a lot. Here, I think the difference was because I knew in my head everything was fake, and that the one flesh and blood actor there was interacting with green screen. It messed with how I viewed the way the characters, scenery, and actor interacted.
But, after a few minutes, I got used to it. The visual effects truly are masterful, and I think worthy of some technical Oscar nominations. And the fact that Neel Sethi was able to act so well with nothing, just increases my respect for him.
In fact, the whole cast was wonderful. I especially enjoyed Bill Murray (hilarious as always) as Baloo and Ben Kingsley (I want Ben Kingsley to narrate my life). I also really liked Christopher Walken as King Louie and Scarlett Johansson as Kaa. Lupita Nyong’o and Idris Elba I also thought were really solid. In fact, the only cast I am more excited about than this cast is the one for Andy Serkis’ upcoming Jungle Book: Origins (2018) with Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, and Christian Bale.
The Jungle Book is very respectful to its source material, and is a pretty straightforward retelling except for a few changes. These changes overall help make a more coherent plot, which I appreciated. The acting was wonderful, the story solid, and effects were great. I was engaged throughout the whole movie. I think it will appeal to both kids and adults, although there are some moments that are too intense for young children.
But as I left the theater, something was nagging at me. Finally I was able to put my finger on it.
This Jungle Book just isn’t as much fun. It had funny moments for sure. But there is a distinct lack of personality in comparison to the original. The original was stylish. It had energy and heart. This Jungle Book has heart, but instead of proclaiming it in a loud voice, it says it in a whisper. The obligatory, half-hearted performance of the two famous songs “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” have none of the pizzaz of the original.
So The Jungle Book is a solid film, full of good things. But there is nothing great, nothing that will stick in your memory. I hope future Disney live action remakes will make sure to infuse more style and personality to their movies, because for now, I’m going to stick with my memories of seeing the original.