“The Jungle Book” (2016) movie review

JungleBookDisney Nature meets beloved animated classic! Disney’s newest live-action remake of an animated classic surprisingly plays out very well. Unlike last year’s CinderellaThe Jungle Book strikes a perfect balance between creating a new more visceral experience of a familiar story and paying homage to the best of what the animated version had to offer–the essence of what made it “Disney.” As I was sitting in the theatre, I was amazed at how much the film truly felt like a classic Disney masterpiece that just happened to include beautiful cinematography, incredibly well engineered CG animals, and a plot; albeit, not a dynamic, thrilling, or deep plot, but a coherent plot nevertheless. That’s more than I can say about the original. Even though, I too like the classic. After the Cinderella cinematic schlock, I was not expecting much out of this film. But, I stand (or sit, rather) corrected. The Jungle Book is encouraging in that it proved to me that Disney can still tell a good story that is great for a wide audience and includes the core of the magic of an animated classic but successfully translates the narrative into a live-action movie.

Deep in the Indian jungles, an orphan human infant is found by a wise and caring panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Knowing he would die alone, Bagheera took him to a pack of wolves to be raised as one of their own. Being given the name Mowgli (Neel Sethi) spend his childhood as a wolf. When Shere Kahn (Idris Elba), a vengeful bengal tiger, threatens the wolf pack and the rest of the jungle, Mowgli decides to leave the pack and head for the man village–the jungle is no longer a place for a man cub. Guided and guarded by Bagheera, Mowgli must begin to adapt to his soon to be new life, but is having the most difficult of time. Throughout his journey through the misty jungles, Mowgli will encounter animals and beats he has never seen and even make some new friends along the way, including the lovable Baloo (Bill Murray). All the while, he must avoid an encounter with Shere Kahn while pressing on his journey of self-discovery and wild adventure.

Writer Justin Marks and director Jon Favreau demonstrate that a live-action remake of an animated Disney classic can be the best that a modern cinematic general audience movie can be and still hold onto the magic that has made it a story to stand the test of time. As I have not read the Rudyard Kipling work of literature upon which The Jungle Book is based, I’d like to imagine that this version of Mowgli, Bagheera, and Baloo’s adventures does the words of the English journalist and author justice. Unlike the original beloved movie devoid of any real coherent or conventionally structured plot, this remake tells a visual story supported by a simple but effective narrative complete with proper turning points, twists, and events. The pacing is also well-engineered, which creates a pleasant journey for the mind as well as the eyes. Using mostly on location jungle shots, supported with subtle sound stage sets gives this film a natural beauty that feels like something right out of a Disney Nature documentary. Contrary to how some CG animals can look, these creations were fantastically real–like you could reach out and stroke Bagheera’s ebony hair. Newcomer Neel Sethi is impressive to watch as Mowgli. He embodied the lovable characteristics of the animated version whilst adding in a modern twist. One of my favorite ways to evaluate an actor, in a genre such as this, is if he or she looks like they are having fun. And, Sethi definitely showed that he was having fun bringing this story to live-action cinema.

One of the reasons I was disappointed with the remake of Cinderella is that I missed the magic of the timeless music. Realizing that this was the first attempt to remake an animated classic (not a reimagination as is the case with Maleficent), it is entirely possible that Disney decided to make sure the next remake included the core of what made the animated version so beloved. And you will definitely find echoes of the original Jungle Book in this live action film. Most of the characters you remember from the original are also reprising their respective roles. Some of the roles are modified to either be more or less prominent, but it’s all very effective in building the story. One of the characters that is not as prominent in this version is the bola constrictor Kaa (Scarlet Johansson). But, in the relatively short amount of screen time, she delivers an exceptional performance, inclusive of the hypnotism, and through her interaction with Mowgli, Kaa reveals his backstory that adds to why Shere Kahn has vowed vengeance on his life. Just like in the original, King Luis (Christopher Walken) want to be just like Mowgli and possess the red flower.

There are certain elements of the original that are not included in the live-action version, but they are elements that did not fit in the world Favreau created for this film. Suffice it to say, I do not think that you will greatly miss those parts of the original because this Jungle Book holds onto the original magic and brings it into 21st century cinema. What about the talking animals??? Like with many movies, I did not read up on this one too much because I wanted to be surprised. Needless to say, I did not look up the voice actors so I was not prepared for the animals to speak. When Bagheera first began to speak, I was definitely caught off guard. However, I quickly accepted that the articulating mouths on the animals speaking perfectly good English in the jungles of India were as natural as the luscious green trees and crystal clear water or as natural as Mowgli’s ability to communicate with nearly every creature. The UN must have implanted Mowgli and his friends with those instant translator devices. But, because of the quality of the production, the adherence to the Disney magic that made the original memorable, and the solid writing, I was more than willing to engage in the suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy the movie to its fullest extent.

If you enjoyed the music, characters, and story in the original, then you are definitely going to enjoy this live-action remake. I am excited to see that the essence of the original animated classic is alive and well in this film. I hope this is what we are to expect from the next live-action adaptation of a Disney animated classic.

Cinderella (2015)

Cinderella (2015)Bibbidi Bobbidi Bomb! That’s precisely what the most current adaptation/remake of the timeless classic is. Watch as everything you loved about the original Disney Classic is sucked out of this version. But, after this same tired story has been remade again, and again, and again, and again, what can you expect??? From the casting–with Cate Blanchette being the exception–to the writing to the over all poor execution of the famous fairy tale, you will understand why Disney had to add the Frozen short film prior to the opening credits just to get people to see this travesty unfold. On that note, it too was poorly produced and shoved down the movie patrons’ throats. After the tragic adaptation of the beloved Into the Woods, laughable revisionist Sleeping Beauty/Maleficent, and this year’s flavor of Cinderella, I am fearful of the upcoming live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast.

Ordinarily, this is where I summarize the plot; however, this story has been remade so many times that I won’t bother. But, I will tell you that in an effort to add some new zest to the story, Disney does modify some of the events and adds in additional backstory. And, I will say that I liked the modifications and additions. So, I suppose the whole thing wasn’t a total flop.

One of the cardinal rules of filmmaking: don’t remake a classic and virtually change nothing! Your audience will most likely be bored to tears. It was Cecil B. DeMille who said, “the greatest art is the art of storytelling.” Unfortunately, the storytelling in this movie was not artful or original at all. And I use the term original lightly. I’m aware that many films are based on other works of literature or plays. However, it is vitally important that, when adapting a work of fiction, adding something new is required. Nobody wants to see the same thing over and over. Good examples of creative twists on the Cinderella story were Ever After, with Drew Berrymoore, and the funny, entertaining Cinderella with the beautifully talented Bernadette Peters. Both these versions took the familiar story and created something new. Speaking of Ms. Peters, I have yet to understand Disney’s blatant aversion to casting her in roles that are made for her, such as the witch in the recent Into the Woods and the role of Godmother in today’s Cinderella. Another excellent choice for Godmother would have been the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer.

On the note of casting, I am overall very disappointed with the performances. I will directly point out that I am very happy that Disney chose Lily James for the iconic role of Cinderella, because she boasts a very natural beauty that is not typical of those ordinarilly chosen to play–or drawn to play–Disney princesses. She is someone girls could look up to and not feel like they could never measure up to the unrealistic Disney princess image that often graces the screen. Another positive casting choice was Blanchette as Lady Tremaine (stepmother). She played the role with excellence and truly brought the character to life. At first, I wasn’t too sure about her when the cast was initially announced; but, I stood corrected when everything from her look, to her tone of voice, to her attire screamed ‘I am the evil stepmother.’ She took the Disney villain to a whole new level with the addition of taunting and belittling. As far as the rest of the cast, yes–including Helena Bonham Carter (as Godmother)–I am very disappointed and was constantly thinking of who else should’ve been cast in the various roles. 

Pacing is very important to the structure of a screenplay, and the pacing was way too quick for this story. There were many times that it felt like key turning points or plot twists were just glazed over for the sake of runtime. Another area that structurally suffered was the very ridged narrative. It’s like we jumped from scene to scene without well-crafted transitions. An example of this is when Lady Tremaine has Ella’s glass slipper. We are never even given any clue as to how she thinks to look for the iconic shoe. One of the elements that made Ever After such a hit when it came out was the writing and casting. It took a story most people are familiar with and came at it from a whole new angle. This angle allows the storytellers/filmmakers to include what was loved in the more fictitious fairy tale and build upon it to being the story as close to reality as possible. Between the narrative structure and the casting, this live-action Cinderella still remains a favorite by many. Likewise, the (also Disney, by the way) movie musical adaptation of Cinderella in 1997 made its mark on the classic tale/broadway show by giving it an impeccable cast and adding new musical numbers (“Falling in Love with Love” being a fantastic addition). As you can see, both these movies (as well as Into the Woods and the other Cinderella adaptations over the years) often put their own spin on the story to essentially create a new experience for the movie audience. I find that this version of Cinderella failed to create something new and simply rehashed poorly what has already been done.

Note to Disney: Disney, you need to try something new! Please stop your current trend of creating live-action versions of your beloved animated movies that made you the king of the industry that you are, because you are losing sight of the art of storytelling. I really hope this live-action adaptation of the animated movie is not a foreshadow of what we are to expect with Beauty and the Beast. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if they do not cast Angela Lansbury as Ms. Pots–and no one can play that role like she can. Movie go-ers beware: this is not your childhood Cinderella.