Film Review: “The Jungle Book” (2016) and the Pleasures of Joy

Every once in a while, you come out of a film feeling happy that you saw it. Not overwhelmed or perplexed or thoughtful. Just…joyful. Some films just have that power.

The Jungle Book is one such film.

I have to admit to some trepidation going into this. I was less than thrilled with the way that Maleficent turned out, and I was really afraid that the same would happen with this beloved classic from my childhood. I was afraid they might botch it with too many incoherently interwoven storylines and that the film would end up a complete mess. Fortunately, however, the opposite was true. It is, in essence, a retelling of the original Disney version of this film, with some elements of the Kipling stories thrown in and, fair warning, a bit of murderous violence on the part of Shere Khan.

For the canny viewer, the film contains a number of Easter eggs. Though she makes a very small appearance in the film itself, Scarlet Johansson’s Kaa does deliver a delightfully sibilant rendering of “Trust in Me,” over the end credits. For those who were perplexed (as I was) that the original King Louie was an orangutan (which are not native to India), the Favreau has cleverly rendered him into a Gigantopithecus, the giant ape that many believe to be the explanation for the Yeti.

The voice talents in this film are, in a word, phenomenal. I didn’t think that one could do any better than Sebastian Cabot, George Sanders, Phil Harris, and Louis Prima as Bagheera, Shere Khan, Baloo, and King Louie, respectively. However, I have to say that Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, and Christopher Walken do a stellar job. Kingsley adds just the right amount of gravitas and genuine affection to Bagheera, while Bill Murrary is in truly fine, charming form as the buffoonish yet lovable Baloo. On the villainous side of things, Idris Elba snarls and chews his way through the script, but he truly does lend a powerful grace to his portrayal. And truly, no one  but Christopher Walken could lend this much more terrifying vision of King Louie such a unique aura of menace and charm.

Of course, no review would be complete without praising Neel Sethi, the boy who plays Mowgli. At the most basic level, it’s refreshing to see a person of colour and of Indian descent playing this character. However, he is also just a great actor, bringing a certain world-wise charm and playfulness to the role that I really wasn’t expecting. Though I’m a little skeptical about the wisdom of the announced sequel, as long as Sethi is on-board, I’m game for it.

While I normally find 3-D to be a distraction, I actually found that it worked quite well. Part of what lends this film its joy and its unbridled energy is the use of the camera, which often mimics Mowgli’s own excitement. We as spectators are invited to enjoy this kinetic camera, and while the jungle world that we see is completely (or almost completely) computer-generated, this heightens rather than dampens the sense of beauty and wonder if evokes. Further, the claustrophobia of the final fight sequence is truly enhanced by the 3-D camerawork, allowing us to feel, vicariously, those last, breathtaking moments before Mowgli’s final victory. (FYI, if you’re interested in the cinema of sensations, check out Richard Dyer’s article on the subject in Sight and Sound, from 1994).

There is, indeed, something uniquely satisfying about seeing the devilish and sadistic Shere Khan finally get his comeuppance at the hands of the boy who has suffered so much at his hands. It’s important to remember that the tiger was responsible for the death of not only Mowgli’s human father, but his lupine one as well. While Shere Khan does have some measure of justification for his anger and hatred toward humans, he eventually becomes so blinded by his bitterness that it proves his undoing. I’m still a little anxious about the that the film reinforces Mowgli’s inherent superiority as a human, but I need a little more time to mull that over before reaching any firm conclusions.

Now that the bad taste of Maleficent has been thoroughly washed out of my mouth, I have high hopes that Disney’s other remakes-in-the-works will be similarly well-crafted. I have particularly high hopes for their upcoming Beauty and the Beast, which looks quite promising, indeed.

Come on Disney. Keep impressing me. We’ll both be better for it.

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