The Jungle Book (2016)

It’s the Disney film you know and love, but with all the bad parts taken out. There’s no more racist undertones to the whole monkey/orangutan sequence. The Beatles vultures are a no show. That idiotic, childish elephant sequence is out of here. And, spoilers, the seductress water girl doesn’t convince Mowgli (Neel Sethi) to join the human race.

I’m surprised how serious the opening act of this film is. A lot of time is spent with Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) imparting lessons about the jungle and the rules governing social constructs of the jungle such as peace rock and the pack. Just about the time it gets to be too much, the film lightens up.

Once Baloo (Billy Murray) shows up, a much-needed bit of levity is added. Bill Murray was born for this kind of role: a carefree spirit who has a penchant for manipulating people to benefit him. There’s still a lot of serious stuff going on after this, but Baloo makes this much more enjoyable for kids and adults.

The elephant in the room, so to speak, is the use of CGI to render just about everything that wasn’t Neel Sethi. And it’s surprising how good it looks. While a lot of fully realized CGI worlds look a bit plasticity, this one looks and feels about as real as anything I’ve seen on this scale. And the animal performances look great, something that’s hard to do with talking animals. There’s the occasional shot where you see a few of the cracks in the work, but overall it’s a magnificent visual piece.

I also like the more developed themes here of nature and invention. Mowgli is scolded for using “tricks” when he makes simple tools. It’s part of the reason that he leaves the community. However, when he meets Baloo, he finds these tricks wonderful and he finds a way to express himself. But the darker side of human ingenuity emerges with the red flower: fire. This is the destructive side that Mowgli unleashes on the jungle, a commentary on man’s penchant to destroy nature.

I like this film a whole lot more than the old animated version. It’s less problematic and strikes a good tone between serious and silly. There are moments where I think it adheres too much to the original, for instance Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) is an absolute throwaway moment of fan-service. I prefer Pete’s Dragon for a better story and set of characters, but The Jungle Book is probably a more well-rounded film.

© 2016 James Blake Ewing