If you think about it, The Jungle Book is not the most obvious choice for a live-action Disney adaptation. While the songs from Disney’s 1967 animated original are pop culture touchstones, the film itself usually doesn’t rank among the most-beloved Disney’s classic animated features. Throw in a renewed examination of the imperialism in Rudyard Kipling’s writing and the possibility of a supporting cast of realistically rendered CGI animals falling on just the wrong side of the uncanny valley, and you have a movie that’s maybe not the obvious slam dunk of Disney’s recent offerings. But Disney saw something in the property, and I’m glad they did. The Jungle Book (2016) is a visually arresting adaptation that captures the spirit of adventure in Kipling’s original story, if not necessarily its text.
The plot: After his father is killed by the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), the “man cub” Mowgli* (Neel Sethi) is found by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and placed in the care of the Seoni wolfpack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). Raised by Raksha and mentored by Bagheera, Mowgli lives peacefully with the pack until his age and the influence of Shere Khan make the animals of the forest distrustful. Bagheera agrees to take Mowgli back to the village, but the two are separated when Shere Khan attacks. Mowgli adventures on his own through the jungle, encountering the dangerous snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the lazy sloth bear Baloo (Bill Murray), and the imposing monkey king King Louie (Christopher Walken). In his adventures, Mowgli must learn to reconcile the Laws of the Jungle that uphold the natural order with his innate ability to create human tools and machinery.
Remember when Avatar came out? Remember how for one excitable December of 2009 we were certain this would be the future of filmmaking? The Jungle Book posits that maybe it still could be. The titular jungle doesn’t have the flashy otherworldliness of Avatar’s Pandora (that’s what it was called, right?), but it brings the forests of Madhya Pradesh to life, providing them a sense of real physicality and scale. The Jungle Book creates a teeming ecosystem and places the viewer within it. The forests of The Jungle Book are the sort other critics might be tempted to call a CGI spectacle, but that term feels wrong here. Spectacle aims to keep the audience spectating with mouth agape from a distance; The Jungle Book aims to draw the audience in with an environment that avoids exoticizing and other-izing the Indian jungle, but instead makes it feel like a thriving, physical space. It’s on the short list of movies that are actually worth watching in 3D.
The real trick of The Jungle Book is bringing a supporting cast of wolves, bears, and other animals to not-completely-unsettling life. The animals of The Jungle Book hit that rare, alchemical spot between naturalism and the uncanny. That balance is crystallized in the way Shere Khan’s ear twitches as he delivers a chilling monologue, his scarred face conveying menace and rage without reading as overly anthropomorphized. Neel Sethi shouldered a ton of dramatic weight acting in the absence of animals or working with digitally replaced puppets and director Jon Favreau and the CG team meet him halfway, making Mowgli’s interactions with animals seamless and real. The voice cast rises to the challenge as well, turning believable CG animals into believable characters. Elba’s Shere Khan is every bit the cunning and deadly tiger of the Kipling book and Ben Kingsley and Lupita Nyong’o become believable surrogate parents to Mowgli, Bagheera as a gruff but caring dad who struggles to reach his rambunctious son and Raksha exuding warmth and unafraid to fight for her child. Bill Murray, in Bill Murray fashion, steals the show as Baloo, sharing with Mowgli a friendship closer to Adventure Time‘s Finn and Jake than to the sleepy mentor and eager student of Kipling’s book. The CG world of The Jungle Book make it breathtaking, but the characters make it memorable.
Though it’s not reflected in most adaptations, only a few stories in The Jungle Book** are actually about the adventures of Mowgli, some of which take place out of chronological order. As such, there’s a distinctly episodic feel to Disney’s adaptation. Mowgli’s adventures with Baloo and his encounters in the monkey kingdom feel like they could be separate installments in an ongoing series as the book originally was. The result is a lot of punchy, exciting action, but an overarching plot that’s spread a bit thin. An important character death early in the film that should have immediate repercussions doesn’t affect the action until much later in the film. The threat of the villainous Shere Khan feels ever-present until it doesn’t anymore. The result is a film with thrilling sections with some connective tissue of varying quality. The book’s spirit of children’s adventure shines through in this structure, particularly with this movie’s added trait of Mowgli being a whiz inventor. It’s as accurate an adaptation of the original text as any Disney movie is (read: not particularly), but it captures the elements that make the original beloved.
It’s when the movie tries to capture the spirit of its 60s predecessor that it wobbles. The Jungle Book is not a musical. Well, except for the occasional musical number. The movie tries to interject songs from the original Disney picture, but it never truly feels like a great fit. The desire to hear Bill Murray sing “The Bare Necessities” seems like the clearest reason why “The Bare Necessities” is included, and it is downright jarring when Christopher Walken, drawing from Long Island mobsters and Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now for his intimidating King Louie, starts belting out “I Wanna be Like You”.
When people look back at The Jungle Book, it might be as a technical marvel that pushed CGI to dazzling new places. That’s all well and good, and it’s a reputation it richly deserves, but I hope it also gets remembered as a fun and engaging adventure, because that’s what it is above all else.
*No one believes me, but “mow” is supposed to be pronounced like cow. There are primary documents from Kipling to back this up.
**This is including the cleverly titled The Second Jungle Book.