August 24, 2016

Blu-Ray Review: THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016)

Starring Neel Seethi, the voices of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Garry Shandling. Directed by Jon Favreau. (2016, 106 min).

Confession time, folks. I always hated Disney’s 1967 version of The Jungle Book. Yes, I know it’s fondly remembered by millions who loved it as kids, but that’s exactly the problem with it. Compared with such early masterpieces as Bambi, Dumbo or Pinocchio (which still hold up today), The Jungle Book looks and feels like a dated, unambitious kiddie film. For me, that movie heralded the Disney’s sad descent into animated mediocrity, where they dwelled in darkness for the next two decades until The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast led them back into the light.

When Disney began raiding their vaults to produce live-action versions of beloved classics, I was dubious at first, especially since Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was an utterly unnecessary (and joyless) remake of one of my favorites. However, Cinderella turned out to be a wonderful surprise considering I didn’t care for the original all that much. I’ve always believed that if you’re going to remake a film, pick one that wasn’t all that great to begin with. The Jungle Book fit that bill perfectly, though I didn’t think even the mighty Disney had a hope in hell of pulling it off. Live action movies with talking animals almost always suck.

Not this time. As directed by Jon Favreau, this version The Jungle Book outclasses the original in every way possible, while still essentially staying true to the story. It’s epic in scope and technically brilliant, the kind of movie that makes you wish you owned a high-def TV the size of a billboard. With the exception of Mowgli (played by Neel Seethi), nearly everything else (including the jungle setting and legions of animals) is either CGI or accomplished through motion-capture, all of it seamless and completely convincing. If nothing else, it would be a crime if this film weren’t at-least nominated for a visual effects Oscar.

All of the most beloved characters from the original return, but instead of jive-talking bears and scat-singing monkeys, a host of terrific actors lend their voices to give actual depth to these characters. We never feel like Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray or Idris Elba simply showed up to read their lines. They disappear into their characters the way all great actors do. The only voice that remotely feels like stunt casting is Christopher Walken as King Louie, though the decision to depict the character like a mafia kingpin is admittedly very clever.

"Please, Mowgli...not in front of the lions."

While the overall tone of The Jungle Book is more serious and darker than the original, there’s still plenty of room for amusing moments, as well as the two best-remembered musical numbers, “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” (a sultry version of “Trust in Me” is also included during the end credits).

Of course, Disney's not done yet. But rather than doing live-action versions of undisputed classics (like the upcoming Beauty and the Beast), why not remake more of those which fell short of perfection the first time around? By most recent accounts, they've even managed to rework one of their worst films of the 70s (Pete's Dragon) into something magical. So, if any head-honchos at Disney are taking requests, how about giving The Fox and the Hound a similar upgrade? Just think of the increase in tissue sales alone.

This version of The Jungle Book makes the original look like the work of Hanna-Barbara. Even if you're too cynical to be sucked into the story or charmed by these reinterpreted characters, the incredible visuals alone are worth the watching again and again...on the biggest screen possible.

Featurettes: “The Jungle Book Reimagined” (a pretty amazing look at how this film was made); “I Am Mowgli”; “King Louie: Layer by Layer” (a detailed look at how this classic sequence from the original was reimagined)
Audio Commentary by Director Jon Favreau
DVD & Digital Copies

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