Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Jungle Book Review

Time to trek back to the Disney fairytale remakes! I can't believe this is a sub-genre now...

I don't think I've ever taken the time to discuss my opinion on remakes or re-imaginings, but both can be extremely different with equally different results. Remakes, or taking an original product and presenting it for modern audiences, are usually very hit or miss for me. Usually it doesn't come from the idea that I like the originals source material, but because the remake took something out of the original that I had immensely enjoyed. Or in trying to adapt a story for modern sensibilities, something is lost in that translation. You would think a remake would just be a simple 1-1 job, but often times it isn't, and the results usually show. The Ghostbusters remake is drawing a lot of ire because it's messing with the original source material and doing it badly. There's something to be said about good remakes, but they're few and far between.

Re-imaginings, on the other hand, often get confused with remakes very easily. It's taking the original source material and putting a new twist on it. Instead of the twist being something minor, like changing character genders or setting it in modern times, re-imaginings tend to look at the fundamental structures of a movie. It looks at the core ideas and themes of the original, then twists them in a way where you can still recognize the DNA of the original, but the experience is completely different. Maleficent might be based on Sleeping Beauty, but it approaches the same story from Maleficent's perspective and portraying her as the hero instead of Aurora and the bland prince.

All of these live action adaptations of Disney classics that Disney has been putting out over the past couple of years are all re-imaginings of the animated classics and some fare better than others. Maleficent perverted Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella romanticized uhh... Cinderella... and The Jungle Book darkens the Disney movie. This is a much more mature, much darker, and much more adult take on the Rudyard Kipling classic, and for the most part, it succeeds. Not because the darker take is necessary better than the light hearted original, but because my God the animation here is spectacular.

Mowgli is a human that has been raised in the jungle all of his life. He lives among a pack of wolves that call him a "man-cub" and is under the watchful eye of Bagheera the panther. One day though, a powerful and vicious tiger named Shere Khan returns to the jungle and vows to kill Mowgli unless he leaves the jungle. Bagheera urges Mowgli to escape to the world of man, but Mowgli instead wants to stay in the jungle. While escaping Shere Khan, he encounters several colorful characters like Baloo the bear, Khaa the snake, and King Louie, who is by far the best thing about this movie.

The original Jungle Book was probably one of Disney's... alright animated movies. I remember watching it a ton as a kid, but I haven't gone back to it in well over a decade. That isn't to say that it's a bad movie, but compared to Disney movies of the same era like Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Cinderella, Jungle Book just simply isn't that strong. It has its moments, but I don't hear anyone crying out how much they love the animated movie.

In the re-imagining, I still can't really see the spark that makes people fall in love with this story. It's a fine movie, and it takes a lot of efforts to make the story more interesting and more dramatic, but the results ring hollow to me. Mowgli essentially has to act off of animated creatures, and while they look absolutely amazing, Mowgli is still acting against nothing, so his performance suffers. It always looks like he's saying the lines just to say them without having any real passion or commitment to them.

The rest of the cast though is beyond phenomenal. With such a star studded cast, it's almost impossible for one of them to not turn in a great performance. You have Bill Murray as Baloo, Sir Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, and of course, Christopher Walken as King Louie. Idris Elba unfortunately doesn't give as strong of a performance as you would expect from Shere Khan, but he does okay, as does Lupita Nyong'o, who plays Mowgli's mother. The highlights easily go to Scarlet Johansson as Kaa, who plays the role as subtly as possible while being beyond terrifying, and the man, the myth, the legend, Christopher Walken as King Louie.

I don't know who's brilliant idea it was to cast Christopher Walken as King Louie, but my God is it bizarre and so watchable. King Louie in this movie is a titanic orangutan that barely moves and it always kept in shadow. Walken plays him like some kind of mafioso boss who would break Mowgli's legs if given the chance. Even stranger is that he still sings "Wanna Be Like You", yet no other songs are sung in the movie. Yes Baloo sings a bit of "Bear Necessities", but Walken gets the entire song to himself as he speaks his way through it while throwing money and food around and muttering at how he'll kill anyone that gets in his way. It's so bizarre and so dark, but I couldn't turn away from it. By all accounts it doesn't work, but it's just so damn watchable.

And that may actually be one of the biggest problems I have with this movie; it's dark. I'm not opposed to dark messages and morals in movies and I think that kids can put up with a lot of dark and scary moments in movies when given the chance, but Jungle Book lacked the joy the usually comes after the dark moments. Characters are killed, Mowgli nearly dies several times throughout the movie, and characters like Kaa, King Louie, and Shere Khan are quick to talk about how much they'd love to A) Kill Mowgli, B) Describe how they want to burn everything, or C) Contemplate killing side characters to get to Mowgli. All of the joy and fun of the original seems sucked out of here unless Baloo is on screen cracking a few jokes.

I'm at such odds with the darker direction of the movie because it still provided some good character moments. Characters actually became characters and we saw the depths of each character's impact on each other. Baloo lies to Mowgli to get him to leave, Mowgli leaves the wolf tribe of his own volition, and the relationship between Shere Khan and Mowgli is much better than it was in the original. The results are well worth the darkness, but for kids, I wish that it wasn't as grim as it was. And while there's still that Disney magic, this is almost as dark as Maleficent was, but at least the overall product was WAY better than that disaster of a concept.

So I guess if you twisted my wrist, I would say that yes, I do like The Jungle Book. It was a fun ride that made me care about the original source material again for the first time in ages, though after giving it a couple of days, I think my interest has died down again. If Cinderella was the pinnacle of the Disney live-action re-imaginings, then The Jungle Book is a distant second. It's still good, but it doesn't have that same wonder that Cinderella had. Cinderella made me care for all of the characters in it. The Jungle Book made me appreciate the story more, but I still didn't care that much for Mowgli or his friends.

It'll be interesting to see how well this movie does at the box office, because it doesn't really have the makings of a commercial hit. Sure the Disney brand is strong, but will families take their kids to see this darker version of the original? Only time will tell. Plus given that it's confirmed we'll be getting a sequel, the reaction to this movie will definitely inform how the sequel will play out.


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