Movie Review: The Jungle Book (2016)

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A young boy raised by wolves is menaced by a murderous tiger.

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Jon Favreau, 2016

Raised by wolves since infancy, “man-cub” Mowgli (Neel Sethi) struggles to be more like his canine brothers and sisters and fit into the pack. When the vicious, scarred tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) sees Mowgli at a peaceful watering hole, however, Mowgli’s continued existence in the jungle begins to put all the animals at risk. Mowgli must leave his pack. After bidding his mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) farewell, he heads towards the man-village with his mentor and guide, the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Struggling with his decision to leave, Mowgli meets various denizens of the jungle with different perspectives on his usefulness, including laid-back bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and menacing, musical ape King Louie (Christopher Walken). With Shere Khan dogging his steps, Mowgli uses human “tricks” as a survival technique, but his difference with those around him could prove his undoing.

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In an era of rather silly, pointless reboots, this new update of The Jungle Book proves that retelling older stories can sometimes be a transformative, enjoyable experience. By restructuring the story around a stronger plot that actually runs through the film, rather than have it be a boys’ own journey with very little storyline, the updated Jungle Book actually manages to do its own thing. There’s a significant change to the ending that reflects modern thinking, and is a vast improvement on the original. The film is also thematically interesting and relevant, tackling issues like privilege, colonialism, adoption, and diversity against its jungle backdrop. Neel Sethi holds the film together ably, cute but not cloying, questioning but not precocious. This is definitely a coming-of-age film, with Mowgli navigating being an outsider in the jungle, and Sethi handles it deftly.

The movie looks great, too. It’s in solid hands with Jon Favreau, who is proving himself to be a great genre-jumping director (with the exception of Cowboys vs. Aliens). It’s walking a delicate line between cartoon and live-action, with the only live actor being Neel Sethi surrounded by talking animals. It manages this task easily. Almost all the characters feel completely real, especially Baloo, whose chemistry with Mowgli and Bagheera manages to be fantastic despite the animated nature of his being. The film really lifts with the introduction of Baloo. It was fine up until this point, with Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa and Idris Elba’s Shere Khan providing just the right amount of menace (though the film isn’t nearly as dark and moody as the trailer suggested). There’s a sense of fun and humour that’s injected when the perfectly-cast Bill Murray enters the scene as Baloo, though. It only gets better when King Louie gets his big number, which is then repeated over the credits because it’s awesome. The scene between Louie and Mowgli is electric, with Christopher Walken bringing his own Mafia-inspired twist to the role. Plus there are SONGS! The Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You are both performed within the movie, and the soundtrack is a mix of old and new, blending the original film’s jazzy fun with a moodier note reflecting the film’s darker (but not gritty) tone. There are some missteps – the film is overly long, and characters like the elephants don’t feel like they’re used to their full potential, and the usually excellent CGI occasionally hiccups – but overall, this is a worthy update to a classic.

The Jungle Book on IMDb

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