Review: Welcome to 'The Jungle Book'
Let us not forget, Disney is a corporation. To a certain extent, we hold the 55 (and counting) full length animated movies produced by the Disney Animation Studios to a different standard than, say, the 32 (and counting) full length animated movies produced by DreamWorks Animation, or even the 16 (and counting) full length animated movies produced by Pixar, despite the fact that there really isn't much reason to, at this point. Just the fact that the brand is much older maybe should count for something, but, let's face it, just because it is so old, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has less in common with Zootopia than Kung Fu Panda 3 does (even when factoring out the furry aspects and the use of CGI).
We still treat many of those early animated Disney movies almost like sacred texts, despite the fact that Disney never has. Disney has always treated them like what they are; products to be sold. So, you've got annual theatrical re-releases for most of last century, a practice that only died when home video became a thing. To combat that, they introduced the "Disney Vault", which basically extended the "re-release" strategy indefinitely even with home video. Then came the direct-to-video sequels; finally, when those became a bit too damaging to the brand, the live action adaptations began. And the most recent movie to get that treatment is Jungle Book.
Whine all you like about originality and creativity, but Disney's got a business to run. This strategy is pretty much a brand-strengthening exercise, but at least part of the branding is based on "quality," so at least they're going to try and do right by the old movie (if not exactly Rupyard Kipling). And, hey, most of the older Disney movie's are based on properties that are public domain; if Disney doesn't do it, someone else will (and in fact, Warner Bros. has its own Jungle Book movie planned). And its not like Disney hasn't done this before (or, for that matter, that they were even the first movie studio to adapt The Jungle Book). If you want originality from Disney, go watch Zootopia again.
If you want to watch a good movie, well, actually, watching Zootopia again is okay, but do take some time to watch this version of The Jungle Book. It's actually really good.
The Story and Characters
So, this is an adaptation of the 1967 animated version of The Jungle Book; it isn't really an adaptation of Rupyard Kipling's stories (beyond a few extra characters and a few additional nods), so don't go in expecting that. Maybe that's what Warner Bros. will end up doing. I don't know. However, it's not a straight adaptation of the cartoon; it's not the original Disney movie with a live action Mowgli all the sudden. This movie begins a bit earlier than the cartoon version; during a time of drought, all the animals of the jungle come together in truce to drink at the last remaining water sources. Because of this, Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) discovers the existence of Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi), and not being a fan of humanity, announces as soon as the water truce is over, well, Mowgli's in trouble, as well as anyone who tries to protect him.
The depiction of these two characters, the tiger and the man cub, are where most of the main changes in the story you are probably familiar with lie. In the cartoon, the wolves elect to basically kick him out of their wolf pack; here, Mowgli makes the decision himself (and, also, the wolves have a much bigger, and more sympathetic, role). Shere Khan, meanwhile, at first appears to have a reasonable grudge with humanity, rather than just an apparent taste for human flesh; he was blinded in one eye during an encounter with a human (though a flashback adds further layers to this encounter). Ultimately, Shere Khan is portrayed as a petty tyrant, which actually allows him to be a rather effective villain. The movie also seems to go out of the way to have characters react with surprise to the revelation Mowgli is being hunted by a tiger, only to have an, "oh, that guy" reaction to being told which tiger.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Mowgli and black leopard Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) is fleshed out; in the cartoon, it's never really quite clear why Bagheera is the one taking Mowgli back out of the jungle to his fellow humans. Here, the movie makes clear that Bagheera sees himself almost as Mowgli's surrogate father, and that it was his decision to save Mowgli as a toddler wandering around the jungle. Mowgli seems to collect father figures; in addition to Bagheera and his wolf dad, the part of the "cool dad" to the panther's "stern dad" is, of course, Baloo the bear (voiced by Bill Murray), a bit of a con artist who at first just sees Mowgli as a guy who can get him some honey, but soon begins actually care about him. He encourages Mowgli to use his human "tricks," while Bagheera admonishes Mowgli that "tricks" are not covered in the "law" of the wolf pack.
Bagheera, however, is not very good about getting Mowgli out of the jungle; Mowgli has multiple misadventures, including an encounter with ginormous and hypnotic python Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), in what is basically a walk-on cameo (kind of impressive for a vocal only performance of a character with no legs). Kaa basically appears because there has to be a Kaa scene; it's good (and the snake's hypnotic powers are used to reveal an important flashback), but still feels a bit like checking off a box of things that must happen.
Better is the appearance of King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken), who is no longer an orangutan (which apparently don't live in India, so that would be unrealistic), but instead a Gigantopithecus, an apparently extinct giant ape that some theorize survived to modern times as the Himalayan yeti (so, you see, much more realistic). Walken plays the part more like a gangster kingpin than monkey king; he's basically offering Mowgli a protection racket in exchange for the secret of fire, which of course Mowgli doesn't know. The movie is barely a musical; King Louie and Baloo get there signature songs, but that's it.
The movie takes a radical departure from the ending of the cartoon; Mowgli has much more say in what happens to him this time around. In fact, all in all, Mowgli's character is well served by this movie, and Neel Sethi holds his own against a menagerie of Oscar winners, Oscar nominees and Oscar should-have-been-nominees. Mowgli greeting Baloo and Bagheera with a simple "Hey, guys!" may be one of the best lines of 2016; it's the perfect punchline to an amazing scene involving a herd of elephants that best encapsulates both the character of Mowgli, and the character of the movie.
This movie is surprisingly good. It sneaks up on you; it's not a movie you go into expecting to really like the way you end up liking it. It's a movie you expect to go into and have fun. And it is fun.
But it's also surprisingly smart. In many ways, it does feel like a reaction to the 1967 version, rather than just a remake, and that's surprising because that was not a movie that feels like it needed a reaction to. But the truth is, in retrospect, it's surprising how much more I liked Mowgli in this movie than in the cartoon version. This version fleshes out both the protagonist's character, and his relationships with the supporting characters, and that is an improvement.
Baloo the bear played by Bill Murray is great; but what makes this movie good is that, at the end of it, he doesn't steal the movie out from underneath the character the movie is actually about, this time.