Digital HD/Movie Review: The Jungle Book (2016)
Now that The Jungle Book is on both Digital HD and Blu-Ray, I thought I'd give it a review (including the special features) since I didn't get a chance to do so when it was originally released. Admittedly, I am not the biggest fan of the 1967 animated version of The Jungle Book. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy watching it, I love the music, and I think there are some great animated sequences. But, I've never had the emotional connection to that film like I do with other Disney films. So, when they announced they were doing a live action Jungle Book movie, I literally went, "meh."
But, then, during the Walt Disney Studios presentation at the 2015 D23 Expo, I became intrigued.
I never really thought about HOW they were going to do the film. Part of me imagined them using trained animals. But, never did I think they'd create the whole world and everything in it, minus a live action Mowgli. And, even still, I wondered if I'd be bothered by a whole film in CGI. Sometimes it works and other times its terrible.
So, when I first went to see the film, I went with fairly low expectations. But, I was very quickly sucked in at the very beginning when they showed the familiar Walt Disney Pictures logo done in a stylized hand drawn style and, as the "When You Wish Upon A Star" refrain ends, it immediately goes into a multiplane effect as the familiar score of the 1967 version starts playing. We are then sucked into this lush Indian jungle and we are completely immersed. I was already in awe.
I'm just going to say it right off the bat. I loved the film and think it is arguably one of the best films to come out of Walt Disney Pictures, not just recently, but through its history. I understand the original concept of the film was to make it dark and dangerous, similar to the tone of Rudyard Kipling's source material. But, when Jon Favreau was brought on as director, he wanted to find a way to meld a concept that showed reverence to the Kipling version while still giving it the light heartedness of the 1967 animated classic. To me, this was always Walt Disney's challenge. To create films that both children and parents would like. And, with Favreau's The Jungle Book, I think they managed to create a family film that harkens back to early Walt Disney films.
The voice cast is amazing. Ben Kingsley as Bagheera really made me think I was listening to Sebastian Cabot. Lupita N'yongo was wonderful as Raksha and Giancarlo Esposito was noble as Akela. Idris Elba brought the kind of gravitas you want for Shere Khan. Bill Murray, admittedly, I was iffy about at first viewing just because his voice was so jarring different than the cool tones Phil Harris originally brought, but have come to appreciate his familar and lackadaisical approach. Speaking of a different kind of casting, I wondered how I'd feel about changing Kaa's voice from the sleepy tones of Sterling Holloway to the sexy tones of Scarlett Johansson. But, I have to say it didn't bother me at all. It was a different interpretation, but it worked for the film. And, it also added a little more gender diversity. And, how could we forget Christopher Walken as King Louie, the only actor who can say "Oobie Doo" one moment and then sound completely threatening the next.
But, the true star of the film was Neel Sethi as Mowgli. I mean, this kid had never done any acting before and then was thrust into this position of being the only live actor on set and playing against blue screen and puppets. How this kid was able to react some beautifully is amazing to me. The moment I fell in love with him was right at the beginning when he was captured by Bagheera in the game they were playing. His interaction with him just seemed so genuine. I hope to see more of this young actor in the future.
The score by John Debney is just wonderful. He had the challenge of tying in George Bruns's classic score with his own original music. It seemed seamless to me. I also love how he consulted with Richard Sherman on the songs they used in the film and was surprised to learn that Sherman himself rewrote some of the lyrics to "I Wanna Be Like You." And, that is quite a feat to rhyme something with Gigantopithecus. And to treat us at the end to full versions of "Bear Necessities" (Dr. John), "I Wanna Be Like You" (Christopher Walken) and "Trust In Me" (Scarlett Johansson) is just wonderful.
And, of course, the special effects work is bar none. I remember seeing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and thinking to myself, "How did they get those damn dirty apes to act so well?" (Just before anybody takes offense, "damn dirty apes" is a reference to the original Planet of the Apes film) I was blown away that they could make something through digital effects seem so real. But, The Jungle Book, which builds the entire world from the same kind of digital effects, just blows it away. From Raksha's soulful eyes to an involuntary flick of Shere Khan's ear to the lumbering walk of Baloo, I would never have known these were not actual animals if I didn't know animals can't actually talk. And, the lush jungle backgrounds are amazing, especially when you see how the movie was actually filmed in a sound stage in Los Angeles against blue screen.
Finally, I was so excited to hear that the book at the beginning of the credit sequence is the actual book they used at the beginning of the 1967 film. In fact, in the special features, they talk about how they wanted to use it and ended up having to film it at the Walt Disney Archives because they would not let it out. And, that only an archivist could handle it. So, at the end, when the book moves, it is an archivist poking it through a hole in a table. Such a great story and a great homage.
So, to the special features. There were four provided with the Digital HD copy:
The Jungle Book Reimagined - This is a 35 minute featurette showing Jon Favreau looking back at the production with producer Brigham Taylor and visual effects supervisor Robert Legato. It's definitely worth watching just to see how it was filmed. But, there is a lot of great stories, many of which I shared in my film review, about the production. If you weren't impressed before, you'd definitely be impressed after watching this.
Audio Commentary with Jon Favreau - Audio commentaries are often hit or miss for me, especially if there are too many people involved in them. But, this is just Jon Favreau basically expanding on what was talking about in The Jungle Book Reimagined featurette. I have to say that I really respect him as a director and, for this film in particular, I love how he is a Disney fan. It's also fun to see homages to such films as not only the 1967 film, but Bambi and even The Empire Strikes Back.
I Am Mowgli - This featurette is specially about Neel Sethi. Again, he is so impressive, especially given his story. The fact that he had no real acting experience to acting by himself (no offense to all the puppeteers and motion capture actors) against blue screen and puppets is quite remarkable. I loved Sethi's relationship with Favreau. I remember, as a kid, seeing a documentary on E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and how Steven Spielberg had a similar relationship with his child actors which brought out the best in them. I feel the same was applied here and it worked.
King Louie's Temple Layer by Layer - This is a fun featurette that does exactly what the title says, shows a portion of the scene in King Louie's temple in various layers. It starts out with John Debney introducing Richard Sherman to his orchestra and that goes into a scoring session. When an orchestra scores, they do see a portion of the film to make sure they are hitting the right beats. So, what we see is finished footage up against some story boarding, some early animation, some blue screen and so on. It's a fun featurette and, again, shows the impressive work put into the film.