It’s hard to believe that it was 49 years ago when Disney released an animated interpretation of Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories known as The Jungle Book. I was a young tyke at the time and I loved the film so much that my parents must have regretted buying me the soundtrack album afterwards. I’m sure they grew very tired of hearing “The Bare Necessities” and the other memorable songs on the LP being played over and over again. (How was I supposed to know, or care, about the whole backroom drama surrounding “I Wan’na Be Like You”?*)
As I was watching the film again the other night, I was struck by how simple it was. The story plays out like eight or so (I wasn’t counting) Flintstones-like episodes about the panther, Bagheera (voiced by Sebastian Cabot), and his attempts to get young Mowgli to leave the jungle and return to the man-village. The film’s mood was very light and references to pop culture at the time were woven throughout the storyline. Both Baloo and King Louie were obvious lovers of Dixieland/New Orleans jazz, which is not surprising given who voiced these characters (Phil Harris and Louis Prima, respectively). As the sun set on the jungle and Mowgli went off with his new love, we were assured that everyone would live happily ever after. Although the 1967 version of THE JUNGLE BOOK doesn’t rank as one of Disney’s best efforts, it does hold up to time although perhaps more so for very young viewers. Today’s nine-year-olds might find the animation laughingly primitive or the story too simplistic.
The 2016 version of THE JUNGLE BOOK is a whole different affair. Although director Jon Favreau (CHEF) used the 1967 film as his inspiration, he created a Disney film for today’s audiences. Mowgli and the gang are all back, though this man-cub is played by real-life, 12-year-old actor Neel Sethi starring in his feature-film debut. Both the animals and the jungle were created on computer screens in downtown Los Angeles, we’re told in the closing credits, and they are so lifelike it’s often hard to believe that they’re not the real thing. This interpretation of Kipling’s short stories is slightly different too. There are no Beatle-esque vultures here, and the elephants play a less prominent role. Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) has a larger role and is much more menacing than his 1967 counterpart. As a result, the film has a darker tone than its predecessor and may not be ideal viewing for very young children. Favreau’s TJB is also more violent – one animal dies and the jungle catches fire due to carelessness (no doubt an environmental message coming from drought-stricken California where forest fires are now becoming a regular occurrence). But, as an homage to the 1967 film, Favreau included three of its classic songs, two of which are sung during the film and the other during the closing credits. Unfortunately, while this was a noble — even romantic — gesture, it doesn’t work and the two songs seem jarringly out of place. Favreau, or perhaps even Disney’s execs, may have thought the story was getting too dark and they wanted to lighten up the mood with some bouncy tunes but they were completely unnecessary. Today’s audiences are sadly used to darkness and violence.
Surprisingly, or perhaps Favreau was keeping close to the 1967 screenplay, King Louie appears in this film too. (The simian was never a character in Kipling’s original works.) However, rather than being an orangutan again, a species that is not native to India, Favreau’s King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken) is a Gigantopithecus, an extinct species of great ape. Favreau and Walken also draw upon contemporary pop culture by having Louie sound like Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz from the film, APOCALYPSE NOW! I doubt young viewers would see the connection but anyone who is old enough to remember the original film will get it.
Sethi’s performance is nothing short of golden, and not just because he’s the only human in the film. He had to learn parkour so that it would appear that he could bound over rocks and swing from vines with the greatest of ease. Ben Kingsley (the voice of Bagheera) lends the perfect amount of gravitas to the role, and Bill Murray (the voice of Baloo) is ideal as the carefree bear. In a break from the 1967 film which had an all-male but one cast, Favreau cast Scarlett Johansson as the voice of the s-s-s-s-seductive python, Ka. She, too, makes the most of her all-too-brief encounter with Mowgli. Christopher Walken is the weak link among the voice actors in the film. Once we see King Louie in all his hirsute glory, Walken’s characterisation of him changes from army man-gone-native to New Jersey mobster. Perhaps if he could carry a tune, his rendition of “I Wan’na Be Like You” wouldn’t have been so annoying.
Even with its missteps though, the 2016 THE JUNGLE BOOK is still a winner and will be remembered as a Disney classic. Go see it on the big screen and be sure to sit through all the credits. (Keep your ears out for the late Garry Shandling who provided the voice for Ikki the porcupine.)
* King Louie was a character created for the 1967 film, and was written with jazz legend Louis Armstrong in mind to be the character’s voice. Walt Disney, however, was worried that King Louie would be seen as a racist depiction of black people, a concern made even more apparent when Armstrong would have to sing the line, “An ape like me can learn to be human too”. Armstrong was ditched and jazz musician Louis Prima was brought on board to voice the character.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 32:25.)
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