The Jungle Book Review: Tense, Fun, But Barely Necessary

Where does a movie like this come from? Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is by far the best of Disney’s slew of live-action remakes so far. It’s mature, exciting, funny, and occasionally quite scary (think twice before this one parents). But what’s the intention? Are fairytales no longer allowed to exist for audiences of all ages? Is animation not good enough anymore to tell stories like this? For the moment, it’s best not to think about it and enjoy the ride.

Favreau’s jungle is lush and full of gorgeously animated creatures that populate the place, but not overly so. Were introduced to Mowgli (Neel Sethi) as he’s racing wolf cubs to prove he’s finally matured with the rest of the pack that raised him. Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) watches over while his wolf mother, Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), nurtures him. The laws of the jungle are defined in a way that gives this version of the tale a little more heft. Here, the elephants aren’t patrolling soldiers, but deities of sorts. But the law is threatened by Shere Khan (a pitch-perfect, truly terrifying Idris Elba), a tiger burned once by man who vows to see Mowgli killed for revenge.

So begins the journey as you remember it to the man village. Though a key difference here is that Mowgli instead chooses to leave to spare the lives of his pack rather than the wolves making that choice for him. Our lead is given pathos and the potential for a true arc here, one that pays off immensely in the final act. Of course, this journey also leads to a bear named Baloo (Bill Murray, as perfect as you wanted him to be).

The film stumbles a bit when the gang reaches King Louie (a distractingly recognizable Christopher Walken), who’s side quest of sorts has little to do with the overall outcome and is far more scary than you remember. There are also some strange, off-putting things about the story’s resolution that I won’t give away here. But it feels like there should be more consequences for a certain character’s actions, when everything ends up being hunky-dory.

Still, with the combination of the source material, the tone of the 1967 classic when needed, and 2016 (hell, maybe even 2020) CGI effects, this Jungle Book manages to feel just new enough without diverging too far from what we know and love. It’s more mature, but there’s still enough time for two of the classic Disney tunes, though one works much better than the other (don’t worry, the one you want works and is a highlight). In many ways, this is likely to become the definitive celluloid version of this tale. This is in fact a better movie than its predecessor for its sheer emotional power and stronger pacing. There’s an element of sadness to that though. The innocence of the animated original is mostly gone, besides when Murray whips out his singing voice. Are all children’s stories destined for darkness? There’s no question, Favreau has made a stirring, intense action blockbuster. But when Disney films turn cynical, where will future generations turn for quality stories for younger audiences? Don’t get me wrong, this film is, for the most part, a rousing success. But the implications of that success point toward a far less cheery era of cinema; of Disney even. What will the cultural consequences of that be? Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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