The Jungle Book Review
One wonders if, in another thirty years or so, the folks at Disney will have the bright idea to again remake all of the studio's original classics - only this time via animation, perhaps with computers. Everything old is new again at the magic kingdom, with some of the most successful recent live-action movies having been inspired by beloved feature cartoons like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and, most recently, The Jungle Book. The 2016 take directed by Jon Favreau intentionally crosses aspects of Rudyard Kipling's original stories with the 1967 Disney musical for a layered yet familiar effect. The result is a sometimes interesting marvel of special effects and strong storytelling.
Telling the tale of Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves, the film utilizes computer-generated images to create a jungle world of elephants, monkeys, a vengeful tiger and a sweetly manipulative bear. In some ways, it's like nothing we've ever quite seen before on screen. The ever-changing boundaries of technology ensure the novelty of a film like The Jungle Book will be fleeting, but that barely diminishes the wide-eyed enjoyment of witnessing an entire fake world created on computers and given voice by the likes of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley and Scarlett Johansson. It's derivative as can be - possessing hardly any originality or authorial voice - but there's still something so commanding in the craft as to inspire awe.
The central performance from Neel Sethi as Mowgli is sometimes too modern, teetering on tiresome, but the vocal work by the well-known cast is uniformly quite good. From Johansson's seductive interpretation of Kaa to the powerful theatricality of Idris Elba as Shere Khan, the voice actors elevate the limitations of the medium. Even Murray conjures up a moment or two of poignancy to offset his expected temperatures of cynicism and lazy nonchalance.
If you're unable to fully buy into the computer effects, which often veer away from looking natural and might be best appreciated as a continuation of the specific artificiality of the backgrounds, the film could conceivably fail to register as little more than an expensive distraction. But getting lost in the adventure element - which is often far more intense than its PG rating might suggest - allows the viewer to forget whether a computer-generated wolf looks realistic in motion.
Favreau, too, emphasizes the adventure element from the onset, having the film begin with Mowgli being chased by unseen pursuers. The camera angles chosen are clearly meant to capture the moment with urgency, catering to the 3-D audience but also retaining excitement for two-dimensional viewings at home. It immediately makes the movie stand out. As the film progresses it somehow manages to keep us invested in violent fights between animals that are clearly not real and in an obviously fictional movie aimed primarily at children. If you get at least a small lump in your throat as Shere Khan battles Bagheera then The Jungle Book has clearly done exactly what it intended to do.
One of the otherwise rare instances of the film displaying idiosyncrasy beyond the interior of its running time is the way it combines aspects of Kipling's original stories with the often-strident cartoon feature from the sixties. Thus, we're treated to unorthodox renditions of "Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You" in a decidedly non-musical film, with the latter even popping up in a fairly perilous scene. And they're welcomed! At least for fans of the Disney original, which is one of the stranger but nonetheless most enjoyable of the classic animation features, the callbacks are both fun and rather essential. It would feel awkward without references to the beloved previous version.
Indeed, if Favreau's effort manages to impress it's due in no small part to the respect it shows to that earlier film while nonetheless building upon it. The result makes for an even richer legacy to the Disneyfication of Kipling's stories.
Walt Disney Home Entertainment has released The Jungle Book on a region-free Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD edition.
Video quality is exceptional. The largely computer-generated image transfers cleanly to disc. In its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, the movie looks outstanding here. There's impressive texture across the image as well an amazing array of shades and colors on display.
Audio is similarly excellent. The default English 7.1 DTS HDMA track allows for every snippet of noise and effect on the soundtrack to come through without a hitch. The musical score often simmers just near the surface before swelling at heightened emotional moments. I'm really not sure how it could sound any better. Also available are English DVS 2.0, French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital dub tracks. Subtitle options are English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish.
Special feature are highlighted by a director's commentary with Jon Favreau which keeps him busy over the course of the track - relaying little tidbits of the production and never failing to celebrate his collaborators. There's also a lengthy, informative piece on "The Jungle Book Reimagined" (35:02) featuring interviews with the creative personnel, from Favreau and producers to the voice actors.
Additional featurettes focus on "I Am Mowgli" (8:18), about child actor Neel Sethi, and "King Louie's Temple: Layer by Layer" (3:14), which shows the various sketches, computer animation, filming, and voice acting that went into a particular scene.