Disney’s 1967 animated version of THE JUNGLE BOOK was pretty much a hangout movie. A bunch of animal dudes kickin it in the jungle, occasionally singing songs. Like HOUSE PARTY but with snakes and shit. The tiger Shere Khan plays the part of Full Force.
Now modern Disney and director Jon Favreau (executive producer, GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS) have brought in more of the world and narrative of Rudyard Kipling’s stories for an excellent live action(ish) version that captures plenty of the spirit of the old one while also being totally different. It uses versions of the original songs and even evokes Disney animation with a painted version of the castle logo, but never feels redundant. It’s like putting on glasses and seeing that version in more detail, from the visuals to the story.
I have to admit, after COWBOYS & ALIENS I kinda thought maybe we got too excited about Favreau as a director because of IRON MAN. Clearly I was wrong. This is a movie I can’t imagine many directors pulling off. Like with IRON MAN he finds a perfect balance between nerdy love for the source material and clear vision of how to tell the story in a dramatic way we haven’t quite seen on screen before.
And it can’t be easy competing with the memory of Stephen Sommers’ 1994 version.
(That might be unfair. I haven’t seen it.)
You may or may not be aware that Mowgli the man-cub (Neel Sethi) was raised by wolves. Favreau and writer Justin Marks (STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI) don’t have to go back and tell us the whole story from the beginning, but they open with Mowgli sprinting, swinging, leaping, scurrying across branches, parkouring and tarzanning through the jungle as part of a trial to join the Wolf Council. We learn from them about wolf culture and jungle law, for example that when the water level is low enough to reveal a certain rock, a “water truce” is called and all the animals share this drinking pool peacefully. It’s a brilliant way to introduce all the species of the jungle and the way they regard each other. It’s only when Shere Khan shows up that everybody gets scared.
This is a truly intimidating villain, not just because tigers are mean motherfuckers, and also not just because he has a scary fucked up eye like Koba in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, but also because he has the voice of Idris Elba and he uses it to psychologically terrorize everybody. Pretend to be reasonable for a minute so they’ll let their guard down and then he can go berserker on ’em. He’s basically a bitter racist who thinks he needs to kill Mowgli for the safety of the jungle. He probly really believes it, though it’s also a personal grudge against the human who burned his eye. We later see in a snake-induced flashback (long story) that the human in question only burned him in failed self defense as he was getting pounced on. So, despite all the things you could easily pin on mankind, especially if you’re an animal, this is not really one of them.
Shere Khan gives the wolves an ultimatum to hand over Mowgli when the water truce ends, so Mowgli and the panther who originally found him, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley, SPECIES) decide it doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right, they should just beat it. The movie is mostly a journey toward the Man Village, as Mowgli falls into different crowds and scenes. For example he becomes homies with Baloo the bear (Bill Murray, the guy from the male version of GHOSTBUSTERS), who lives kind of a slacker lifestyle facilitated by Mowgli’s inventions and risk-taking. Also he gets kidnapped by monkeys and meets King Louie (Christopher Walken, COUNTRY BEARS), the shut-in ape king who lives in temple ruins and wants “man’s red flower” (fire) so he can be even more powerful.
The celebrity voice casting on this thing is A+. At first I was thrown off by Bill Murray Baloo as I realized that – of course – he was playing him as a dick. You don’t want this to turn into outdoor GARFIELD. But it works perfect when he does the whole heart-of-gold turn. Scarlett Johansson plays Kaa, the hypnotic snake, so she adds a sultry, seductive element to the character while she’s also more primally scary because she looks like a real snake. I believe her part is a little shorter than in the old version, but don’t worry, Scarlett gets to sing “Trust in Me” over part of the (excellent) end credits.
And could there be a more perfect modern version of Louis Prima than Walken? Tony Bennett, maybe. But this is a very different King Louie, a huge now-extinct baboon thing I never heard of called a giganthropithicus or something, way bigger than Baloo even, who actually attacks Mowgli after threatening him. So this version leans on Walken’s menacing mobster characters as much as his lovable musical side. Yes, he does the song (the only full on musical number in the movie – “Bare Necessities” is more laid back, like Murray and the kid doing karaoke). He doesn’t dance though.
An obvious movie to compare this to is BABE, because it takes a similar approach of treating its animal characters and the mythology of their tribal traditions very seriously. There’s a “Baa-ram-ewe” equivalent, and Lupita Nyong’o(NON-STOP)’s Raksha the wolf is very reminiscent of Fly the mother sheep dog. But rather than trained animals and puppets they use LIFE OF PI style extremely-realistic-cgi animals. It’s envelope-pushing animation technology but– well, I was gonna say probly less of a pain in the ass than using the real animals, but I guess it goes without saying that scenes with panthers and bears would’ve presented even more challenges than the pig and duck ones in BABE.
I’m sure this is blown out of proportion, but I heard there were some people against this movie because Rudyard Kipling was a big ol’ racist. I guess the theory being we as a society must erase all memory of the great works of bad people. Sounds stupid to me. Like BABE (who is not a racist) this version of the story has a nice message about people/animals of different backgrounds learning to get along. In fact, there’s alot more than that going on here. Mowgli is a minority in the jungle; an outsider, misunderstood and stared at and feared because he’s different, and he just tries to hold his head high and live his life. Though he was raised in a predominantly wolf neighborhood and self identifies as wolf he does have a hard time finding his place in the culture. He grows bigger but slower than the other cubs and has not been able to pass their trials.
But whenever anyone insists that Mowgli “belongs” at the Man Village he’s not having it. “This is my home!” he says. He’s never even been to the Man Village and has no idea what it’s like to be one of them. And he doesn’t know jack shit about fire. So it’s kind of like Japanese-Americans who were born here but people expect them to speak Japanese or know karate or something. He’s one of them whether they like it or not.
And he knows alot of the different animals so when he’s on the run he’s almost excited about the possibilities of which animals he could join. At one point he feels like he might be a turtle. I don’t know why I love that. A boy who one day is like you know what, I can see himself as a turtle. He’s like Seagal, he loves to adapt to different cultures and take on their traditions. Is this cultural appropriation? I don’t think so. I think most of the animals besides Shere Khan are willing to give Mowgli a jungle pass.
And there’s this other thing – what Bagheera calls “your tricks.” Mowgli uses tools, but he’s not supposed to. So making a bowl to scoop up water in is forbidden. When he eventually proves the usefulness of tools he’s also proving the value of humans as just another species of animals with their own set of characteristics and talents. He’s showing that he doesn’t have to live among his kind to accept his human heritage. He can stay where he knows he really belongs but also be himself.
This is a real good movie. One very minor complaint: did it have to be Dr. John covering “Bare Necessities” on the end credits? I believe they also had him do “Cruela De Vil” on the live action 101 DALMATIONS. We’re going to have to hear him doing “I Have No Strings” and the Phil Collins TARZAN songs and all kinds of shit on the end credits of live action versions of cartoons, aren’t we? I for one did not call a doctor.
Obviously I would’ve preferred they go off book:
Here’s a pretty good cover of “Bare Necessities” though:
They’re already planning THE JUNGLE BOOK 2, which is weird because I believe they used up the Mowgli-related stories in the book. I couldn’t understand how the hell they’d do it until I found out what happened to some of these characters after THE JUNGLE BOOK. In the ’90s Disney did a TV cartoon called Talespin where Baloo, Louie and Shere Khan wore clothes and flew planes and shit. So get ready for that. TOP GUN with animals. I hope you know what you’re doing, Favreau.
p.s. If you’re into 3D, it’s worth the extra couple bucks on this one.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.