Different in tone from the 1967 original, and nowhere near the bar set by 2015's Cinderella remake, The Jungle Book charges full-speed toward one central theme: survival. The Odyssey-like structure is easy to follow for young viewers, while the darker and more mature elements hold the attention of parents. 3 out of 5.
Want Another Take? Watch Our Video Review of The Jungle Book
The latest installment in the Disney remake saga is a vast, sweeping, adventure. Wise, rule-following panther Bagheera (beautifully voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley) begins by telling us the story of the Man Cub Mowgli. Abandoned in the jungle when just a baby, Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) is taken under Bagheera's care and then placed with a wolf pack. He grows up among the pups of strong she-wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o) but always knows he is very different from his canine brethren. He makes up for his slower speed and lack of claws and teeth, however, with his "clever tricks": tools and inventions like cups, spears, and ropes. This incites suspicion from other animals in the jungle, but Mowgli maintains his ingenuity nevertheless.
Trouble begins when the animals peacefully gather for a "water truce" during an intense drought, and vicious tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) shows up, his face bearing deep scars of man's "red flower" (fire). Khan sneers at Mowgli and reminds alpha wolf Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) that Man Cubs become Men, and men are not allowed in their jungle. Khan vows to hunt and kill Mowgli once the rains return, and he proves true to his word. Will Mowgli find a way to balance his desire for the jungle and his uniquely human gifts, or can he only find safety by abandoning the jungle forever to rejoin those of his own kind?
The film is certainly a visual feast. Lush jungle landscapes provide the perfect backdrop for adventure. And unlike previous CGI-fests (like Disney’s garish Maleficent), The Jungle Book's graphics don't frantically compete with its characters for the viewer's attention. The structure works well for children: the locations drive the action, and each new place provides a fresh challenge for the young hero. Most importantly, director Jon Favreau provides an interesting angle on the Man vs. Nature motif. Many films pick a side to champion, and then vilify the other. Rather, this story shows that, just as each animal in the jungle has its own beauty and strength, there is something unique and special about humans too, including our ability to make choices based on more than mere instinct.
A few things keep this new Jungle Book from reaching its full potential. While Sethi works hard, one wishes he'd had more to interact with than computer generated creatures; there is no substitute for that spark of human connection on screen to evoke moving performances.
Additionally, the movie could have been significantly more coherent had it not been tied to the shadow of the 1967 film. While it isn't too far fetched to see Bill Murray's Baloo break into The Bare Necessities, that was nothing to the bizarre, unsettling rendition of I Wanna Be Like You, performed distinctly out of nowhere by Christopher Walken as King Louie of the Monkey Kingdom. Many Disney remakes seem to falter in deciding what to do with the beloved songs of the original animated versions, and understandably so. But homages truly do nothing positive for this new rendition.
The ending also comes abruptly; Mowgli's imminent connection with the nearby human village was not given its due, something that could have helped conquer the lack of human chemistry here.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
Mowgli struggles to find his place in a world where he doesn't belong, but his friends and adopted family members show him patience, grace, love, and selflessness. Teaming up with Baloo shows Mowgli how two very different people can still be friends and accomplish much. The introduction of the predatory serpent Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) is a reminder of the dangers of the world, especially when we try to go it alone. Elephants are given almost god-like respect by other creatures, and tales are told of how they "created" the jungle. See also: The Jungle Book and the Doctrine of Adoption
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: PG for some sequences of scary action and peril
- Language/Profanity: None.
- Sexuality/Nudity: None.
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: There are several situations of peril that may frighten younger viewers. Animal violence is shown in several scenes. One animal is killed by another, and a man is killed by a tiger, although nothing graphic is shown on-screen. A snake hypnotizes a boy and nearly eats him.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: Kids (especially animal-lovers), fans of excellent CGI animation, and those able to withstand a few less-than-stellar elements for high-action exploits and a pleasing story.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Pickier film buffs, those looking for something to break new ground in directing or screenplay, and anyone sick to death of Disney remakes.
The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau, opened in theaters April 15, 2016; available for home viewing August 30, 2016. It runs 112 minutes and stars Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito and Christopher Walken. Watch the trailer for The Jungle Book here.
Debbie Holloway is a storyteller, creator, critic and advocate having adventures in Brooklyn, New York.
Publication date: April 15, 2016