The Movie (4/5)
The original Jungle Book animated film, released by Disney during the 1960s, is one of the few Disney animated classics that left me feeling unsatisfied when the credits rolled. The message was rock solid, the animation was colorful and goofy, and the songs, especially, “I Wanna Be Like You,” are some of my favorite songs to come out of the Disney animated canon. My first viewing as a young adult was one of the few times where I’d truly wished that a movie was just a little bit longer – not to fix plot issues, or develop characters, but just because I wasn’t ready for Mowgli to move on, and accept his fate as a man. So, naturally, it was a tough sell to convince me on a live action reboot – especially since they’d already tried one already, and it wasn’t particularly impressive. Add to that the fact that Jon Favreau was the man behind the camera, and now you’ve got me nervous – the guy honestly only has one big budget success under his belt, and he’s in charge of bringing Mowgli’s story to a new generation of young minds? Man, at this point, I’m sweatin.
So, after two weeks of being badgered by friends, and by coworkers, I finally set aside my prejudices, and hit up the local multiplex for a screening of The Jungle Book. To my surprise, it was fantastic, with one huge caveat – but we’ll get to that later.
The Jungle Book is of course the story of the human child named Mowgli, who was raised by wolves in the jungle of India after being delivered to them by the black panther, Bagheera as a baby. As he grows up, he struggles to fully fit in with the wolves, and when their safety is threatened by the malicious tiger Shere Kahn because of his presence, he elects to venture off into the jungle in hopes of returning to the world of man. Aided in his quest by Bagheera, they explore the jungle, running into the lovable bear Baloo, a herd of massive elephants, a deadly snake, and various other obstacles, forcing him to use every trick he can to survive the jungle, and defeat the evil Shere Kahn.
Jon Favreau and his creative team’s take on the classic Jungle Book story, which was originally written by Rudyard Kipling, is definitely tied with Disney’s re-visioning of Cinderella as their best live action remake of their animated classics. Like Kenneth Brannagh’s take on Cinderella, they borrow bits and pieces of the original animated film’s story beats and musical numbers, only integrating them when it feels natural to the story. All of the classic characters such as Baloo and King Louie return, brought to life with the power of modern computer generated imagery, the likes of which straddles the line between comfortably cartoon-like, and realistic. Combine that with a solid ensemble voice cast, filled with the likes of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken and Scarlett Johansson, all of whom bring their A game to the table, and the powerhouse acting of newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli, and suddenly you’ve got something the potential for something special.
The Jungle Book is a visual powerhouse, falling in line with the ranks of Avatar and Gravity in its attempt to create a completely digital world. Shot on soundstages in California – which is definitely noted in the credits, the vast jungle of India were recreated entirely using computers, with only one physical human – the previously mentioned Neel Sethi, on screen for the majority of the film. Each of the principal animal characters from the original animated film have been recreated with slight anthropomorphic qualities, which helps prevent the film from dipping into uncanny valley territory. The CGI is phenomenal, with lifelike fur animation, detailed ruins full of cracks and crumbling structures, and beautiful water and fire that feel as if you could reach out and touch it, even in the 2D presentation of the film. To say the least, the environments of The Jungle Book feels alive, even if it was shot using a plethora of blue screen sets, augmented with various physical obstacles.
On top of its stellar animation, the adaptation’s script is funny, heartwarming, and really comes to life through the stellar acting of Neel Sethi, whose strong, but emotional performance is even more astounding when you consider that he never actually worked with any of these animals. His ability to emote is both a testament to his ability, and Jon Favreau’s strength as a director. He’s always been a better acting director than a special effects sequence helmer, and that comes out in full force through The Jungle Book. The film is edited well, with a thrilling pacing that keeps things for the most part tense and exciting, but also allows the slower, more humorous scenes to breathe and let character development build. The voice cast is overall competent at filling their legendary roles, with the exception of Christopher Walken as King Louie. Hear me out – he doesn’t deliver wooden lines or anything, I just haven’t quite come to terms with his performance of the classic tune, “I Wanna Be Like You.” That’s a judgment that you’ll have to make on your own.
The film is fun, well crafted, and a solid envisioning of the classic Disney version of The Jungle Book, with a bit of a modern flare tossed in to spice things up and make it compelling for a new generation.
SERIOUSLY. I’M LAYING DOWN SOME SERIOUS BEEF. DON’T READ TILL AFTER YOU’VE WATCHED THE FILM.
I’ve laid out what’s good – now let’s talk about my caveat. The Jungle Book was clearly designed from the ground up for a sequel, and considering its massive box office success, it will get one. Unfortunately, this completely tramples over one of the most inspiring and mature endings Disney constructed for their animated films. At the end of the original film, Mowgli realizes that he wants to join the man village, and in a touching moment, Bagheera and Baloo leave him to realize his destiny as a man. It’s a poignant ending, one that teaches us that we don’t have to run away from what’s in front of us. That, even though the journey is difficult, its okay to grow up, and accept new and foreign responsibilities.
This reboot kind of just tosses all of that in the trash. At the end of the new film, Mowgli defeats Shere Kahn, and then just goes back to chill in the jungle with all of his animal friends. It completely negates the themes of the original film, and delivers the completely opposite message to the viewers. In the race to bank on the box office potential of a sequel, Disney has stomped all over the classic ending of the film that were attempting to revitalize for a new generation, and that’s why I have a tough time giving this film a higher score.
The Video (4.5/5)
Shot using the Arri Alexa XT camera in the 3D format, The Jungle Book was mastered in 2K for digital projection, and presented using a 1.85:1 flat aspect ratio. The Blu-ray is presented in 1080p in 2D ONLY, and maintains the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The Jungle Book was shot entirely on soundstages in Los Angeles, with the majority of the film produced based on motion capture and bluescreen footage. As a result, nearly the entire world was created around Neel Sethi using CGI. In an age when the public seems to have a hunger for practical effects, The Jungle Book stands as a perfect defense of the exact opposite – CGI can be used tastefully to create compelling worlds. In 1080p, The Jungle Book is incredible – fur ripples with exacting detail, water flows and light reflects as it would in reality. Color is saturated and appealing to the eye. The transfer is nearly flawless, except for the occasional soft bit of CGI footage that crops up in the foreground here and there. Fire ripples vibrantly, and each piece of debris shatters about brilliantly. This one could stand on its own with its visual transfer alone.
The Audio (5/5)
The Jungle Book is presented on Blu-ray with a 7.1-DTS Master Audio surround sound track. For review purposes, this Blu-ray was listened to in a 5.1 surround sound configuration.
Perfection is not a word I toss around lightly, especially with the noisy audio mixes for modern films, but in his team’s attempt to recreate the magic of Fantasia’s Fantasound format that wowed audiences in the 1940s, Jon Favreau and company have created one of the most exciting audio mixes of the year. From the opening scene, sound effects and John Debney’s phenomenal score fill out the soundscape, engulfing you in ambient noise and emotive music. Dialogue pans away from the center channel in many instances, something that doesn’t often crop up in current films, and subwoofer activity is plentiful and sharp, especially in the larger action sequences from the film. If I had a complaint, its that Disney still refuses to give us home video recreations of their Dolby Atmos theatrical presentations – I can’t personally sample them myself, but I’d love to someday have the chance. Perhaps we’ll get there when they jump on the 4K UHD bandwagon. For now, this 7.1 soundtrack is incredible, and is definitely reference material for your A/V setup.
Special Features/Packaging (4.5/5)
The Jungle Book, released to home video by Walt Disney Home Video, comes packaged in a standard blue keepcase with a pseudo-holographic and textured slipcover. The slipcover and the front artwork of the keepcase feature identical artwork of Mowgli making eye contact with Shere Kahn, while surrounded by monkeys from the jungle, but slipcover is just remarkable in the way it conveys depth which makes it wonderful. The image is detailed and colorful, just as the film it contains on the inside. The back artwork for both the slipcover and the keepcase are identical as well, featuring a list of bonus features, a paragraph describing the film, technical specification, and credits, set against a picture of Mowgli riding Baloo down the river, as well as 4 other shots from the film. Inside the package is a Disney digital copy slip, and a Disney Movie Club advertisement. Overall, this is one of the best looking slipcover + keepcase combos I have acquired this year.
Onto the features:
The Jungle Book Re-Imagined – a 35 minute in depth documentary on the production of the film, from its conception all the way through the final shoot and visual effects. It explores a lot of what director Jon Favreau added to the original plans for the film, and how he helped retool it for the vision that was brought to the screen today. Oddly enough, its framed in 1.85:1, which is unusual for special features.
I Am Mowgli – a eight minute piece on the casting of Neel Sethi, and his performance in the film. Lots of really cool bluescreen behind the scenes footage is shown off of Neel on set, and a great depiction of his view of the production.
King Louie’s Temple: Layer by Layer – a 3 minute breakdown of all of the various pieces of the King Louie Temple sequence, including footage of the orchestra performing the pieces, the voice recording of Christopher Walken as King Louie, and pre-visualizations and storyboards of the effects used to create King Louie, alongside finished shots from the film.
Feature-length Commentary – a feature length commentary by director Jon Favreau. Entertaining and informative, exactly what you’d expect from a director commentary.
The Jungle Book features some of my favorite packaging of the year so far, and its complemented by a light, but engaging selection of extras that makes it a compelling addition to an already great film. I just wish there was a bit more to dig into here, but what we got is of high quality.
Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
DTS-Master Audio 7.1 (English)
Dolby Digital 2.0 (English Descriptive)
Dolby Digital 5.1 (Spanish and French)
The Jungle Book is a near perfect recreation of one of my favorite Disney animated classics, retaining the wonder, fun, and ambition that the original brought to the table in its attempt to take us to the jungle. I have my own issues, well documented above, but the film is an absolute crowd pleaser, and was a massive box office success, grossing nearly a billion dollars and garnering near unanimous praise from critics alike. The Blu-ray is one of the year’s best, with a dazzling 1080p video transfer, and an engaging 7.1 audio presentation, topped off with a light, but filling selection of bonus features, and eye catching packaging. Don’t miss out on this one, it’s absolutely recommended.