The Jungle Book (2016) (PG)

This review contains SPOILERS!
Jon Favreau's "The Jungle Book" is less an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's book and more a re-make of the 1960 animated classic. I'm not sure this surprises anyone, but since there have been numerous movies made based off the book, this newest iteration, which could have been seen as "truer" to its source material, has to make many, many homages to the original. Since the plot does deviate quite substantially from the 'original', what is left over is the music.
It's kind of a misnomer to call this version of "The Jungle Book" a "live-action" movie...because it's mostly computer generated. The only "real" images that we see are of Mowgli. It is subtle, because the graphics are really great, but still noticeable. As the movie continues though, the voice acting and graphics become quite convincing so that every animal featured becomes more enjoyable to watch than Neel Sethi whining about his life as a poor child in the jungle.
The movie begins with the original soundtrack and nostalgia kicked in hardcore for me. It was kind of a shock when Ben Kingsley's voice occupied the spot that Sebastian Cabot's originally held for Bagheera. This cast does not have a history with voice acting and as such, it seems a little out of place when held up against the original movie.
But the remake tries to distance itself from the original as much as possible. Even within the first few scenes, it is clear that this won't be a shot-for-shot live-action counterpart to anyone's childhood. No, "The Jungle Book" attempts to fill some of the larger plot holes of the original.
The plot is mostly motivated by a drought, which hits the jungle as soon as the opening credits introduce Bagheera and Mowgli and the wolf pack. It is the worst drought the jungle has seen in years, so bad that the watering hole dries up and the "peace rock" is revealed. This sign acknowledges a truce because in the jungle, 'drinking is more important than eating." So as the animals descend to the watering hole, all at once for some reason, Mowgli is introduced to the larger population of the jungle as the man cub raised by wolves.
And then Shere Khan shows up. He's got a vengeance against men and tells everyone that Mowgli will grow up to be a killer, wielding man's red flower and destroying the jungle. Oh, also, he wants to kill the boy because, well, like, he's a tiger and that's kind of what he does.
So the pack decides what will be best for themselves and Mowgli and when the rains return, Mowgli makes the decision for himself that he should move on and not harm anyone. Bagheera starts taking him back to the man village and, well, shit happens.
The motivations of the plot kind of meanders for a bit as Mowgli bumps into familiar figures re-imagined for a more realistic look. There's Kaa, Baloo, and King Louie; but sadly no quartet of vultures singing about being friends with Mowgli. This brings me to a point about the music. The original does not have a lot of songs in it, and only two are that memorable; but the new "Jungle Book" manages to work both of these tunes into an otherwise non-musical. The result is kind of awkward and weird; but you know what, I think we would have been upset if they hadn't been included.
Most notably, Bill Murray sings "The Bare Necessities" and the way the song gets included into the film is kind of crafty and clever. On the other hand, when Christopher Walken starts with "I Wan'na Be Like You" the ska-inspired song takes a more ape-like method. It tried, but it feels so out of place and I'm definitely not the first person to make this complaint.
Still, the animation is stellar and of a great magnitude, literally. The creatures loom over Mowgli, who is small for wolf, which brings up another point. The emotional crux of the film concerns identity. As a wolf, Mowgli isn't great, but as a man, with cool inventions and a great understanding of fulcrum and pulleys (odd for someone who's probably ten) he excels. The tension arises between acknowledging one's ancestry or conforming to what people want from you. In retrospect, considering the movie's conclusion, this stance is kind of confused by the assimilation into a greater good of "jungle animal"; but maybe that's just me being picky.
I think two things should be mentioned about the differences between the movies. The first is Shere Khan's presence. He doesn't show up in the original until almost the end of the film; but everyone is so terrified of him that he feels included. This "Jungle Book's" villain is very present from the beginning and he's very vicious. George Sander's voice was calm and collected, threatening but precise. Idris Elba gives Shere Khan a more visceral, hateful turn; but sometimes his accent makes Shere Khan seems less menacing, the animation makes up for this.
The other thing worth mentioning is far more clever. King Louie appears amidst the thrones of man, obsessed with all things human. The treatment of this character turns in into a demagogue, mobster figure, crazed with obsession of things he cannot be.
The movie looks great; but unfortunately Neel Sethi isn't good enough to carry it on his own. He's annoying and pouty, it would have been interesting to see how a different child actor could have taken the role. He's good enough; but not great.
"The Jungle Book" is epic in comparison with its 1960s muse. It has a completely different message, a much more founded plot, and it's hugely entertaining.

Score: ★★★

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