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The Barest of Necessities

          Any classic Disney fan would be a little apprehensive about this year’s live-action version of The Jungle Book. None of the other Disney remakes have been good and these properties were very important parts of our childhood. But Rudyard Kipling’s book has so much to it that’s never been seen on film before, so there’s ample opportunity to make a great movie out of it -oh right, they’re just doing the Disney movie again.
          The story is about a boy or “man-cub” called Mowgli who is raised by wolves in the Indian Jungle. When the man-hating tiger Shere Khan shows up, it’s decided Mowgli must be returned to the humans by his guardian Bagheera the panther. But along the way he encounters many other jungle creatures intent on keeping him there for their own gain, with the exception of a laid-back sloth bear called Baloo who teaches him the bare necessities of living in the jungle.
          The biggest problem with this movie is that it takes itself very seriously. Which would be fine considering how serious and dark the original novel is, but this is trying to be a remake of the Disney movie. And that Disney movie didn’t take itself seriously being largely a comedy, which didn’t make it much of a good adaptation, but did make it unique. This version tries to keep a darker tone with some grim and tense moments, but they’re hard to take seriously when the film still keeps aspects like Baloo’s goofiness and the songs. Also like Cinderella, some of the additions feel like they’re trying to update the source material and make it more mature, but aren’t necessary. While I don’t mind giving Mowgli a character arc, Shere Khan’s given a back-story that’s pretty clichéd. And then there are additions that again are trying to cement a grittier tone, but make no sense. For example at one point the wolf pack just lets Shere Khan take over, despite it going against the very nature of a wolf pack. These attempts at a serious more dramatic tone for its own sake don’t coalesce naturally with the source of the original Disney movie. If they wanted to tell the Jungle Book story seriously they should have stuck to the book. But sadly, the book’s not as marketable.
          It’s a shame too because director Jon Favreau assembled a very exemplary cast. Bill Murray seems ideal for Baloo and he gives it his best, but he’s just trying to be Phil Harris. Harris’ ad-libbing and attitude created a pretty unique character in 1967, so entertaining that Disney just replicated him with the same actor for their next two films, The Aristocats and Robin Hood. And that’s sort of what Murray’s doing, just playing an established character rather than put any new spin on him. Shere Khan appears a lot more in this film but I appreciated the mystique more his mere reputation had in the earlier version. Idris Elba is pretty good as the voice, but has nowhere near the gravitas of George Sanders. Luckily the gravitas is fulfilled by Ben Kingsley as Bagheera who is perfect both as a vocal match for Sebastian Cabot and for just fitting into the world of The Jungle Book. Scarlett Johnasson, Lupita Nyong’o, and Giancarlo Esposito are fine but their parts could have been anyone. Even Christopher Walken’s a little underwhelming as King Louis, again the film’s serious tone not letting him be as absurd with the role as he could have been. The kid playing Mowgli is pretty good. He gets the physicality down but his dialogue is at times awkward.
          The visuals though are very good. I wish they’d have actually shot in the jungle but the CG cinematography and even many of the animals look great (though both Louis and Kaa are unnecessarily enormous). And the variations on the classic music works well too. Those who have nostalgia for The Jungle Book will be sucked in by the opening score. “The Bare Necessities” though contrary to the tone, is nice to hear; and perhaps the best part of the movie is Walken’s rendition of “I Wan’na Be Like You” which is just as hilarious as you’d imagine. Some changes I do like, like how Baloo and Mowgli’s relationship is made a little more believable, and the climax though dull is different and far less of a cop out than the original movie. And it’s nice if you’re paying attention, to hear the late Garry Shandling in a cameo appearance. But overall this Jungle Book is trapped as a Disney remake and in using that as its source, loses most of the spirit of Kipling’s book and feels in no way as unique as the earlier film.
          Though despite everything, I’d be totally up for a spin-off remake of TaleSpin.

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