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The Jungle Book (2016) Review


Sorry it took me so long but I finally got to see the live action Jungle Book movie that came out (technically this is my second time seeing it because I arrived late at the first showing and thought I had missed some of the opening. Turns out, I just missed the opening titles). I apologize in advance that this is such a long post and if I accidentally reveal too much, let me know and I'll take it out).
A live action remake of the 1967 animated Disney film, this version is directed by Jon Favreau and stars newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli amidst a large array of CGI animals voiced by an all star cast and feels like a mix between the animated version and a slightly darker old fashioned adventure, like the original Jungle Book stories.

Despite being entirely filmed on a sound stage in downtown Los Angeles, I kept forgetting that fact both times I watched the film. The CGI work is absolutely fantastic, expertly designed and painstakingly detailed. Not to mention richly atmospheric and brightly colored (More of this please!)

The animals are almost at that level of design as well, although some might find it lacking (I myself found it ranging from not quite there to so real, its a bit unnerving/distracting. There are some moments though where its accomplished just right, such as when Mowgli and the wolf put their heads together). Even so, the CGI mixed with the story and characters is done at such a level, that even if the CGI does bother you, it won't for very long (I found myself ignoring it more this time around).
The voice acting for the animal characters has a similar range as well: The actors that absolutely nail their roles are Lupita Nyong'o as Raksha, Mowgli's adoptive wolf mother, portraying so much power and emotion in so few words (and making me kick myself for not having seen her Oscar winning role in 12 Years A Slave yet) and the great Ben Kingsley as Bagheera.
While getting off to a slow start, I was quickly won over by Idris Elba as Shere Khan, giving the character the perfect amount of menacing power both vocally, and as an incentive, physically as well (Even psychologically at one point as well)..

The two voices I was most worried about, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa and Christopher Walken as King Louie, actually turned out to be rather effective despite certain problems with the scenes that they were in (which I'll get to in a moment). Johansson was able to manipulate her voice in a such a way that, when mixed with the visuals, was giving me some pretty good goosebumps by the time the scene was over. Walken as Louie also gave the character a good amount of menace and danger, kind of playing the role like a New York gangster (albeit as a giant orangutan).
Finally, I come to Bill Murray as Baloo. What else can I say other than he's charismatic in the role? That's both a good and a bad thing however. Good, in that it helped ease me in and enjoy his performance, but also bad in that the second I heard his voice, I kept picturing him as Bill Murray and couldn't quite embrace him in the role like I did with Phil Harris in the animated version.
Despite this being Sethi's first role, he does a fairly good job, giving a nice physical and vocal performance through much of the film, despite being by himself most if not all the time, and I look forward to his future roles. That being said though, there are things he does need to work on as quite a few of his line deliveries come off as a bit distracting or non-believable (although that's understandable given the circumstances he was working under).

When it comes to the negatives, there are two big ones, namely some wonkiness in the execution of the story and the inclusion of the more obvious elements of the animated version, both of which might be tied together. With the story, the flaws lie in some of the transitions that lead to bigger scenes, with some of them feeling rushed or a little sloppily done. This would include Kaa knowing Mowgli's backstory of when he came to the jungle, Mowgli being reluctant to leave the jungle, when Mowgli first meets Baloo, and Baloo upsetting Mowgli when trying to get him to the man village. While the first of these is understandable and is actually done fairly well, the remaining three are done either in a rush or with a sloppy execution or both.

The biggest problem I had with the story though was the arc where something big happened to an important secondary character that drives Mowgli toward the climax. While the event that happened was shocking, I did not feel the character was built up enough emotionally to leave a proper impact for the audience when the event does happen and the aftermath that leads up to the climax.
What I think hurts the film most though is the inclusion of the more obvious elements from the animated version, like the two bits I mentioned above, the opening and closing, etc. If all those elements had been removed or tweaked and a little more focus had been put on the old fashioned adventure elements (similar to what Kenneth Branagh successfully did with Cinderella last year), then I think the film would have been that much more stronger.

Going back to those transitional scenes, the inclusion to make Mowgli's reluctance to leave the jungle (for one scene mind you) similar to the animated version, where he was a bit of a brat, not only felt way out of character for this version of Mowgli, but also undermined a big emotional scene that occurred right before it.

With the Baloo scenes, while not a problem in terms of being straight from the animated version, was a problem in how they were executed. The former in that instead of easing Mowgli into calming down and starting to trust him, Baloo simply says he has to do something for him, and the latter was executed in such a lazy cliche way, that I had to stop myself from groaning. Both end up hurting the character of Baloo and was another reason why I had trouble fully embracing this version of the character.
Then there are the inclusion of the classic Disney songs, "Bear Necessities", "I Wanna Be Like You" and "Trust In Me" which really feel unnecessarily forced in to tie into the animated version more ("Bare Necessities" and "Trust in Me" less so but that's not saying much). The most unnecessary of the three is Christopher Walken singing "I Wanna Be Like You". Not only is it straight out of left field, but it also undermines the vocal and physical threat that is established for the character (Walken can definitely be effective when he plays it straight, folks. Cowbell, parody, and weirdness jokes aside).

"Trust in Me"'s placement in the ending credits isn't bad as Johansson has a beautiful voice and keeps up that serpentine allure she had when voicing Kaa, but the execution of the song itself, mixed with the background pictures during the end credits, still felt a bit distracting as it came off more like the opening to a James Bond movie than the closing of a Jungle Book movie.
"Bear Necessities" while a little rough in its execution, was not that bad, but simply felt out of place as there was mainly action and drama beforehand with no songs to ease us into it. (Plus. I hate to be that guy but its hard to do a new version of the song when the animated version did it so iconically). Again, if these songs had been removed and the story a little more straightforward, then it would have been a bit more stronger.

Despite these problems, the film really does work effectively, having enough strong story and character elements, action, drama, comedy, editing/pacing, and CGI work to engage the audience emotionally and effectively pull them into the movie. Even better, not only does the film feel like an old fashioned adventure, but it has a nice balance between light and dark and an overall lightness, innocence, and upbeat attitude that makes you feel good leaving the theater and is something that I think is sorely missing from movies lately.
Add this as another positive project to Jon Favreau's directing belt as he definitely has an eye for cultural and nostalgic kind of projects (Iron Man 1 and 2, Chef, Elf, the highly underrated Zathura and Cowboys and Aliens, and finally this one).
I definitely say see it if you haven't already.

Final Rating: 3.4 stars out of 5.

(One last note. I was very happy to finally see a movie where wolves were portrayed as good guys. Thank God!)

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