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“The Jungle Book” Movie Review

“The Jungle Book” is a wild ride — filmmakers breathe new life into Disney classic.

If you’re concerned about spoilers – even if you’ve seen the original animated film – I would advise not reading any further.

I love storytelling math.  There’s a critical bit of it early in Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” — the latest re-imagining of Rudyard Kipling’s work.  The villainous tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), returns to a wolf pack that raised a “man cub” named Mowgli (Neel Sethi).  He had provided the wolves with an ultimatum:  Turn the boy over or die under his claw.  The head of the pack, Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), instead sent Mowgli to find safety among men.

Shere Khan doesn’t take kindly to this and tosses Akela off a cliff.

I’m not well versed in Kipling’s original stories.  In fact, I’ve never read them.  For better or worse, I came to “The Jungle Book” as I imagine most audience members will — familiar with the Disney animated film.  Anyone who’s seen Walt Disney’s 1967 classic knows that Akela doesn’t die.  In this re-imagining, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks boldly deviate from that text.  It’s a smart and welcome change, because — here’s where the storytelling math comes in — it puts you on edge whenever Shere Khan is on screen.  There’s a scene later that had me far more nervous than it had any right to — this is still a Disney film, after all — where the tiger plays with wolf pups, each no bigger than one of his paws, while launching thinly veiled threats at their mother.

And there are a lot of savvy alterations from the animated film.  Mowgli’s given more agency here.  He learns that Shere Khan killed his adoptive wolf father and decides to stop running.  He retrieves a torch from a village and goes to face his enemy.  In so doing, he accidentally sets the jungle ablaze.  Demonstrating that he isn’t necessarily wrong, Shere Khan points out that man and his tricks can’t be trusted.  Seeing the devastation, Mowgli casts down his torch, rallying all of the animals against the tiger.  The sight of the wolves, and yes, a bear, running head long into a meat grinder is damn stirring.

As envisioned here, Shere Khan is a wonderful villain.  I especially loved his introduction.  In the midst of a drought, animals have gathered at a watering hole for a truce.  The tiger’s arrival is prefigured by a flock of buzzards.  Death follows him wherever he goes.  As he descends to the water, Favreau frames him such that his back is visible in the foreground while animals cower behind him — a shark fin cutting across the frame.  As Shere Khan intones about the scent of a man cub, every syllable of Elba’s vocal performance drips menace.

The cast is aces…mostly.  Bill Murray voices Baloo, the bear — some comic relief after intense early stretches.  Ben Kingsley, as the panther, Bagheera, brings all the strength and regality you’ve come to expect from him. Scarlett Johansson is the nefarious snake, Kaa, and Christopher Walken fills the role of King Louie.  Newcomer Sethi has a lot of charisma, but he does veer into the presentational, talking-to-the-back-row technique that sometimes befalls child actors.  Though it’s hard to put much blame at his feet, since he spent the production interacting with green screen and tennis balls.

Which brings me to one of the film’s major selling points — its computer animation.  Like “Avatar” and “Life of Pi,” virtually everything you see on screen, with the exception of Sethi, was computer generated.  This can be troubling for some viewers, and sure, a few moments in “The Jungle Book” don’t hold up to scrutiny.  But by and large, the imagery is stunning.  Environments are varied and lush.  The animals are expressive and we sense their mass and weight (often one of the first things to go with extensive CGI).  In the same way computer graphics for “Jurassic Park” felt like a step forward after “Terminator 2,” “The Jungle Book” is a leap ahead insofar as “live action” productions assembled inside a computer.

Jon-Favreaus-The-Jungle-Book-Concept-Art-

Image credit: Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures

Sure, there are problems.  I’ve already talked about Sethi.  And as much as I enjoy spending time with Bill Murray the bear — he really is perfect — the second act feels a little soft.  It lacks the drive and purpose of the first and third acts.  It seems like this is where Favreau and team are relying most on groundwork laid by the animated film.  Some songs have been carried over, namely “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be like You.”  The latter feels most out of place, largely depicted via awkward close-ups of King Louie with Walken singing/speaking the lines.

Still, “The Jungle Book” is a rousing adventure that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen and with the best sound system you can find.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be on the edge of your seat.  It will envelop you.

What more do you want from the movies?


Guest Author
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Garrett is an entertainment professional living in the Los Angeles area. In his free time, he's a shark hunter, Jedi Knight, Kaiju wrangler and dog owner. He also edits and contributes to movie discussions at 3byThree.

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57 thoughts on ““The Jungle Book” Movie Review

  1. Heh, I hadn’t known that they were doing a live action Jungle Book (again) and was looking through the movie listings yesterday and went to watch it with my wife. Good thing or I would have spoiled myself.

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  2. It’s odd to have a review that compares and contrasts different versions of the Jungle Book, and doesn’t once mention Kipling’s.

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  3. When I first started seeing the billboard and bus advertisements for this movie around the city, I asked myself, “Does the world need another Jungle Book movie?” Not having children of my own, I figured I’d skip this altogether.

    This review makes me want to go see the movie, on my own if need be. And that, as an editor, makes me hungry to post more reviews from .

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    • I have a kid and am debating in my head whether to see it. The only movie she’s seen in the theater was Minions. In general, she doesn’t want to sit down and watch something for two hours if it’s at home. She’s never made it all the way through Kung Fu Panda on DVD, for instance. I assume it’d be different in a theater.

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      • I wonder if I did have a kid, especially a young one, if I’d fear that the violence and action in the movie would be too intense.

        Then I wonder if I’m just pearl-clutching; I watched Tom & Jerry cartoons and Star Wars movies when I was a kid and I turned out okay.

        Then I wonder if the greater realism in modern CGI and the modern aesthetics of faster edits and higher-detail-capturing digital presentation techniques make the action more visceral and intense. Moviemakers just plain know more than they did in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

        And then I realize, kids know what they like: if the kid volunteers that she wants to see the movie, then that’s an indicator that the kid can probably handle what’s in it.

        So I end up thinking, yeah, if I were parent I’d have to take a subjective assessment of my kid and what my kid could or could not handle and it’s not one-size-fits-all and whatever screwing up of my kid I’ve done I’ve probably already done totally inadvertently when the kid was still a toddler and even if I did blow the “is this movie suitable” call it probably wouldn’t matter all that much in the long run.

        Actual parents: is this more or less how you think about taking-kids-to-the-movies issues? Or is the process more along the lines of “Fine, I’ll take you so you’ll shut the hell up about it already”?

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        • It’s something I’ve considered. But she’s heard plenty of stories involving death. It’s very different to see it, but I would explain before and after that it’s all a story. She often asks me to modify stories as I’m telling them, so I hope that’s her comprehending that they are made up.

          Burt Likko: if the kid volunteers that she wants to see the movie, then that’s an indicator that the kid can probably handle what’s in it.

          In my case, this would almost never happen. We have some DVDs at home, but she doesn’t have any mechanism to find out about new movies and ask to see them. The only reason we have Kung Fu Panda was that there was a sale at the library (whatever you could shove into a bag for $5!)

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        • I have found that Mayo tends to perseverate on unsettling experiences that he hasn’t fully process. For several weeks, he came home and told the same story about a classmate hitting him in the eye. It happened once… but because he didn’t get the proper closure, it lingered. It took us a while to figure it out because his expressive language skills aren’t the best. It happened again after a hectic trip down the stairs when the elevator was broken (though not as bad as the school situation). Learning his patterns, I was able to talk him through what happened and give him the necessary closure to move on. But it makes me mindful of what he is exposed to. We watch movies at home and I can sometimes see he scared of them though doesn’t quite know how to make it known. Given the theater experience, I’d be that much more leary of taking any chances. He has been to the theater a few times wiht pretty good results for his age, but those were with very safe movies.

          I don’t imagine this being an ongoing issue but 2- and 3-year-olds can have very difficult times making sense of media.

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  4. My wife and I saw this yesterday and came out of the theater satisfied. I agree with much of what you say, and echo the fact that the remake is remade to dial-up the intensity by a factor of 10. For this reason, I’d hesitate to call it a movie for children – we decided it would be too intense for our 7 year old, but probably ok for our 12 year old (ymmv)… so tween/teen movie is our assessment.

    As you mention, there are some scenes of real cinematic and dramatic excellence, and a few equally clunky. Noting that the film is designed to amp up the intensity, perhaps it’s besetting sin is to rely too much on car-chase-live-action-hero intensity rather than dramatic tension (of which there is more than enough to carry the film).

    I rather liked the songs (Christopher Walken’s redo of Louis Prima’s “I wan’na to be like you” hit me far more favorably than I thought) and think two or three more would have helped with some of the original Kipling tale(s). The wolf code would have been better done in song and perhaps as Baloo aptly notes in one of his best lines, the movie makers suspect as much. Bill Murray as Baloo is a perfect casting choice, he carries the film whenever he’s in it.

    So, while it successfully transfomed itself out of the late 60’s camp, it would have been an even stronger film with a refocus on the characters, archetypes and songs… and for all that is holy, please kill car chases in all forms forever. Ultimately we were satisfied, but couldn’t help but feel they actually had all the talent and raw materials to make an even better film than they did.

    https://youtu.be/15rUJuKCM90

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    • I’ve seen a number of comments elsewhere from parents concerned about taking their children. I don’t have any kids, but my perspective on this is probably a bit skewed. I saw “Jaws” when I was seven!

      You make a good point about the action-hero-intensity, though I did like some of the character drama and interplay. However brief, I thought the whole business with the torch and the appeal Shere Khan makes to the other animals at the end was good.

      Thanks for reading!

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      • I saw “Jaws” when I was seven!

        Good gravy, were you raised by wolves?!

        Yes, Shere Khan is very compelling and very well voiced; but the tale of Shere Khan in the books (which I recognize is beyond the scope of your review) actually makes for better drama as he effectively wins over half the wolf pack and sets the stage for a much more dramatic decline and fall.

        So, on the one hand, they escaped the 60’s camp, but couldn’t pull free of the magnetic force of nostalgia altogether. I don’t blame them entirely – and I rate it purely as a remake rather than a retelling of Kipling – and hence my observation that more songs, more talking animals, and fewer special effects would have made it a better remake.

        But, even recognizing that the tale has more to tell might have helped them with the drama and freed them from the crutch of the effects.

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        • When my nephew was four, my sister and I debated whether he was too young to see Jurassic Park, or whether it would scar him for life.

          We decided to risk his future emotional health, and let him see the movie. When it came to the scene with the T-Rex and the kids, my sister freaked out, and more or less landed on my lap. My nephew looked at her, impatiently, and scolded: “Mom! It’s a movie!”

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  5. If you want a good idea what Kipling’s original books were like but without having to read them, you can watch the Chuck Jones adaptations of some of Kipling’s stories like the Mogwli stories on YouTube for free. There is also Chuck Jones excellent adaptation of Riki-Tiki-Tavi. Chuck Jones decided to play Kipling straight rather than tone it down and change the morality like Disney did in their Jungle Book adaptations. Walt actually told his staff not to read the Jungle Book when doing the original animated version in the 1960s. Chuck Jones read Kipling.

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  6. I’m not well versed in Kipling’s original stories. In fact, I’ve never read them.

    They’re free for download here and here. The original story which introduced Mowgli as a grown man (which makes the Jungle Books prequels) is available here.

    If you read them, and never refer to The Jungle Books as “Disney stories” again, my work here is done.

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  7. I’m assuming Cub Scouts of America no longer uses the Akela/Mowgli stories as a narrative framework for the organization?

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  8. Saw it, enjoyed them though I was not blown away precisely. Definitly superior to the animated version (though the existence of Tailspin redeems the animated movie and proves its existence is evidence of a benevolent deity). Some disjointed thoughts:
    -Agreed on Shere Khan, he was both amped up in menace and also deepened in character. This Shere Khan makes sense on so many levels. He is a character burning with hatred of an especially feline nature. He has lost his eye due to his own o’er weening arrogance and has wrapped himself in fury and righteous vengefulness to compensate. His appearance bears that out- massively menacing and powerful yet shabby as compared to Bagheera’s composed and put together look. Shere Khan is virtually rotting from his own malice on screen and it’s very well done.

    -The transfer of Kaa to female worked well and her voice work was superb. The sibilant s’s were a given but every word and intonation was also woven into hissing and it was, if anything, even more mesmerizing than the eye trick (which was itself clever).

    -I found the different take on the elephants almost moving and somewhat apropos. I oddly wished that we could see Shere Khan encounter them at some point because their wordless creators’ regality stood diametrically opposite from his eloquent venomous destructiveness. Emphatically superior to their Disney animated incarnations.

    -Baloo has never fit right in the jungle from the original story to now and the chatter about hibernation picked at the scab on this disjointed connection relentlessly. Despite that Murray was the perfect Baloo.

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