Jungle Book – 1967 and 2016
Director Wolfgang Reitherman (1967) and Jon Favreau (2016)
Writers Larry Clemons, Ralph Wright, Ken Anderson, Vance Gerry, Floyd Norman, Bill Peet (1967) and Justin Marks (2016)
Starring Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima, George Sanders, Sterling Holloway, J. Pat O’Malley, Bruce Reitherman (1967) and Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idiris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Neel Sethi (2016)
It’s been done so many times by now it’s hard to be too enthusiastic about the next one that is always around the corner. We already have Andy Serkis’ committed to the next version, which was pushed back because of this one. The biggest feeling I have about that is why did Andy Serkis commit to such a path that has been so well traveled, even if he had no clue when he started his version?
Everyone knows the story. Instead of me rehashing it, just look at the poster from the 1967 original animated feature:
I actually always imagined the original film to be much more fun than it really is. There is the promise of danger and fun both, but what we get is Disney’s approximation of hip in the 1960’s. Some hip monkeys playing night club music is cool. A snake doing psychedelia less so. The Buzzard Beatles not at all. There is altogether too little of Shere Khan, a window dressing of wolves and the best part of the film, Louis Prima’s King Louie, is given a spotlight cameo. We are left with a puzzling back and forth between Begheera, Baloo and Mowgli all playing as if they are tired of each other just in time for them to leave the young boy alone long enough to find trouble. There’s too much average and not nearly enough good to compliment the superb animation – some of Disney’s best.
There is a lot of talent in the current version of The Jungle Book. First and foremost, Bill Pope as cinematographer. The man behind The Matrix Trilogy, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and most important, Army of Darkness does much credit to the process of digital photography. We have a sense of place. There is also more a sense of gravity than one would expect from such an effects laden venture. That there is as much or more animation as the original here thankfully does not make it seem as bad as something like, say, Gods of Egypt.
The vocal talent for the Favreau’s film is up to the the task. Bill Murray is the obvious high point capturing the very essence of Baloo. We know Baloo is lazy, but he’s so much more than that. Just like Murray is so much more than a counselor on Meatballs. The same feeling that one has watching Tripper prod along Rudy the Rabbit, we get seeing Sethi stroll through the jungle bouncing off of the old blue bear. I loved Harris’ version of the old dope, but Murray…just Murray.
Kingsley carries the same sort of authority as Cabot playing Bagheera. He is still the lithe panther trying in vain to instill some sort of wisdom in his friend. For me it’s a straight across trade. I have always appreciated the character’s faultless dedication to someone who really could have been not his problem at worst and at best a quick meal. The improvement here is that we get a clear vision of his motives. He works with the wolves and with Mowgli in trying to keep them all together as a more effective hunting unit, but more importantly, safe from those who would pick off loners. No need to ponder the irony of a solitary panther teaching this concept. We all consider Begheera the older brother we’ve always wanted.
Next we have the wolves. We get way more of these in the new version, and I like them. Nyong’0 has a voice like honey and listening to her as an impromptu matriarch gives Mowgli a real sense of a background that remains even as he wanders. The cruelty of Alba’s Shere Khan is given more weight as he squats on their domain, effectively holding them hostage to his will. Finally, some stakes we can understand.
King Louie (Walken) is given some additional weight, literally, as they change him from an Orangutan to an ancient Gigantopithecus living in ruins and leading the Bandar-log to a wild and upwardly aspiring place in the animal kingdom. This is the single best segment of the film, with a excellent variation on the original, while making it all somewhat more plausible and entertaining at once. Don’t ask me how, because it’s still silly as hell. It works mainly because we love Walken, the primate looks like, sings and hoofs it with the same panache. If one has to choose between the old Louie (Prima) and the new, I would say, with some hesitation, the scene needs more cowbell.
The film treads ground with the Kaa segment. Johansson gives a seductive flair to the voice of the big snake, and the results are equally silly. At least with Sterling Hayden’s whispy voice matches the snake’s doomed futility. The way Johansson sounds, one should expect Mowgli to at least turn to stone, if not wind up pregnant. Give it to the original.
Big props go to the update with their portrayal of the honorable elephants. The mystique is given the appropriate props for such an ancient species. This works in many ways, adding to the story and giving the ending a satisfying tinge.
Being an improvement on The Jungle Book has never been that hard, story-wise. It’s not all that great. The challenge has always been in topping the beauty of the animation. Jon Favreau has the right tendencies when dealing with technology. There is a sense of gravity to each of the characters, the rain looks like rain and Mowgli actually looks like he’s making eye contact instead of something like this:
To be sure, I am probably never going to own this film. I may watch it again, but I know there will be more sequels, more remakes and more attempts to improve on the profits of this property. I appreciate it for what it is, and I did like the way the characters look like their voice counterparts, much the same way they did in the original. The wheel comes back around and its spin adds not that much to the life of the story.
1967 (***) 2016 (***1/2)