If you’ve seen (and who hasn’t) Disney’s wonderful 1967 animated version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, you already know the story of an orphaned Indian child Mowgli, his being raised by a pack of wolves in the jungle, and living (not to mention conversing) with other animals like black panthers, monkeys, pythons, elephants, and. . .oh, yes. . . a friendly bear named Baloo.
In this rebooted remade version, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) runs afoul of that nasty man-eating Bengal tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba) who hates man, their “red flower” (fire), and especially Mowgli. Issuing an ultimatum to wolf pack leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and his mate, Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), it’s either “give me the man-cub or else!” Black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), Mowgli’s mentor and teacher, decides it’s safer to return Mowgli to the man-village. But his plans go sideways when Shere Khan attacks Bagheera and Mowgli, leaving the kid to escape on the back of a rampaging water buffalo.
Safe for the moment, the boy is almost crushed by a ginormous python named Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) while we get some much needed exposition into Mowgli’s backstory. Fortunately, the kid’s rescued by a great big lovable Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), who cons the gullible Mowgli into getting him a rich supply of honey and teaching him how to sing the familiar The Bare Necessities. Mowgli, a bit of a Macgyver with leaves, rocks, vines, and what-not, gladly accepts. Naturally the two bond and Baloo wants Mowgli to stick around
Meanwhile, Shere Khan isn’t the most patience 500lb lethal pussycat, so he kills Akela to force Mowgli’s return home. Bagheera, still bent on getting the boy home to the man-village, gets Baloo to see reason and send the kid packing, but another problem pops up. A really BIG one in the form of a King-Kong sized orangutan named King Louie, who refers to himself as a Gigantopithecus (Google it)and voiced by Christopher Walken. This ape wants Mowgli to give him the secret of the ‘red flower’ or else his thousands of monkey minions will be very unhappy.
Another escape ensues thanks to Baloo and Bagheera, but the truth spills out about Akela and Mowgli vows revenge against Shere Khan. Not a good idea for a 11-year-old to go up against a vicious carnivore armed only with a torch he stole from the village. The ending pits the red-diaper wearing tyke against the half-blind scarred ravenous kitty cat in a mano-a-paw showdown.
With a playful script by Justin Marks, the movie does take liberties with both Rudyard Kipling’s book and its 1967 animated counterpart, but all for the better. The new story here is almost the same as the previous 1967 film, but with some much better variations, but don’t expect a real ending–Disney already announced there’s going to be a sequel. And all the photo-realistic CGI animals? Absolutely jaw-dropping. At times I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t.
The movie’s success hinged on two things: the kid playing Mowgli and direction. Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, makes his screen debut here and is fantastic, teetering on the brink of being over-the-top Disney TV cutsie. He almost strays there, but director Jon Favreau keeps him in check. Sethi simply makes the movie watchable. Favreau has alot of fun here, especially with Bill Murray’s Baloo and Mowgli, which is easily the film’s best moments; it’s classic Murray and his ad-libbing with other animals that is hilarious. But don’t discount the gravitas of the deadly Shere Khan, who is about as evil and ruthless as a killer kitty can get.
Side note: Look for several The Lion King references: Shere Khan, with his deep British accent, is SO Jeremy Iron’s ‘Scar’, the water buffalo stampede is there along with ‘Simba’ returning to face the animal that killed ‘Mufasa’, and there’s even a clever wink ‘n’ nod with a meerkat & a warthog (Timon & Pumbaa) quick shot.
Walt Disney passed away right in the middle of the making of this, thus ending an era that many say the Disney Studios never recovered from. The original concept was that this animated feature film was to be a darker departure from the usual stuff they were churning out, but Walt put the kibosh on that quickly, making The Jungle Book a kid-friendly musical comedy. Whew! Thank you, Walt!
A young orphan boy in India named Mowgli (voiced by Bruce Reitherman, the director’s son) is found by Bagheera, a black panther (Sebastian Cabot), and is taken to a mother wolf to raise as one of her own. She raises Mowgli who soon becomes well acquainted with jungle life and, ten years later, we see him playing with his wolf siblings. One night, when the wolf tribe learns that evil man-eating tiger Shere Khan (George Sanders) has returned to the jungle, they realize that Mowgli isn’t safe and must to taken to the local “Man-Village”.
Bagheera volunteers to escort him back, but Mowgli wants to stay in the jungle. As sinister python Kaa (Sterling Holloway) tries to devour Mowgli, he escapes to join an elephant patrol, led by British Colonel Hathi (J. Pat O’Malley). Mowgli soon meets up with the laid-back, fun-loving bear Baloo (Phil Harris) who promises to raise Mowgli himself and never take him back to the Man-Village. But Mowgli is then kidnapped by the crazy orangutan King Louie (Louie Prima) in order to get Mowgli to teach him how “to make the man’s fire”. Fortunately, Baloo saves the day by dressing in drag and rescuing the kid–and destroys the King Louie’s stone ‘palace’ in the process.
But when Baloo decides that the kid does belong back at the Man-Village, Mowgli runs away. Shere Khan finds him with the help of Kaa and four British-speaking vultures that sound suspiciously like the Beatles (they aren’t, btw). As the kid is about to become dinner, Baloo comes to the rescue again and is almost killed. Bagheera scares off Shere Khan and Mowgli, deciding that maybe the Man-Village is a good idea after all, goes to check it out and is instantly smitten by a cute little Indian girl there. Needless to say, he leaves the jungle and all’s well that ends well.
A whopping six screenwriters (!!!) adapted Rudyard Kipling’s dark book and twisted it into a lively, colorful, musical adaptation that delighted audiences of all ages. Even my father liked it! The voices were perfection and the animation was pure Disney, coming at a time when the House of Mouse employed the best cartoonists in town. But it was clear that after Walt’s passing, without his influence and guidance, things wouldn’t be the same in the quality of Disney’s animation feature films. That was evident in the movies after Jungle Book, i.e. The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Fox and the Hound, and the horribly awful The Black Cauldron.
On the plus side, this movie has the impeccable Sherman brothers (Richard and Robert) who again wrote some great songs, including the movie’s signature tune, The Bare Necessities, which you can’t get out of your head once you hear it! The Jungle Book would go on to make major bank at the box office, and even an Academy Award nom for Best Song. Disney even came out with not one, but TWO sequels! A decent live-action one in 1994 with Jason Scott Lee as an adult Mowgli, and a forgettably bad 2003 direct-to video animated one.