Like every other classic movie ever made, Disney’s beloved children’s film, the Jungle Book, has been given a remake. And while many other retellings of classic stories wish to recapture that greatness the original possessed (often to no avail), this remake ventures in a different direction, bending with the trend of modern movies and becoming a much more mature, and realistic adaptation of the bright and innocent film. So which one’s better, the dramatic and more serious modern version, or the light and simple old version? Well, all in all, neither.
The Jungle Book (2016) is a modern retelling of the 1967 Disney musical of the same name. It stars Neel Sethi as Mowgli, a human child who has been raised deep in the jungle by a pack of wolves and his stoic guardian Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley). Life is good until an infamous tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) arrives to find and kill Mowgli because of his hate for humans. For his own safety, Mowgli leaves the only home he’s ever known to travel through the forest in order to get to the human village where he will be safe. On his way he encounters the easygoing bear Baloo (Bill Murray), the hypnotic snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), and the giant King Louie (Christopher Walken), and learns the true meaning of friendship and home.
Surprisingly, even though The Jungle Book is a direct adaptation of the classic 1967 film, they are difficult to compare. This mostly has to do with the fact that while the old version is meant for all ages whereas the new version is not, with the new version being much more mature and suspenseful. While the original was content to be purely a calm, happy, and innocent romp, nowadays audiences crave more realistic, intelligent, and adult entertainment, which is exactly what The Jungle Book 2016 delivers. Audiences didn’t really want these aspects in children’s films back in the 60s so the two films are on opposite sides of the children’s movie spectrum.
And whose to say which end is better? I can’t tell you if a peaceful, bouncy and bright children’s film is superior to a darker and more action filled one because it’s a matter of what you as an audience member want in your film. The different versions were made by different worlds with different values for audiences made up of different types of people. As times change, our thoughts on what a movie should be change with them. Classics like Blade Runner and The Shining were panned by critics when they first came out, and are now heralded as cinematic masterworks, so I can’t say if the old version is better than the new or vise versa. However, I will say that the old version is better for children under six and the new one is probably better for the rest of us. They are equally good movies meant for different age groups and exceed each other in different ways.
The 2016 version is much more emotionally fulfilling than the 1967 version. For example, in the new film Mowgli’s relationship with his wolf family is very realistic. His wolf parents see him as a son and when he must abandon his entire family forever, both Mowgli and his pack are upset and torn up about it. In the original however, his family objects to him leaving with the same conviction as a student objecting to being moved to another desk. Mowgli cares more about not leaving the jungle than not leaving his family. If they had given Mowgli a more pronounced relationship with the wolves, and by extension the jungle itself, then most of what happens in the film would have had more emotional weight. The original Mowgli’s emotional disconnection from everything that happens in the film makes him a very bland main character. In the new version however, Mowgli actually cares about his family, which in turn gives the film emotional weight and makes Mowgli more relatable as a protagonist. In addition, they gave actual aspects to Mowgli’s character such as him being resourceful, clever, and brave. This, in addition to a great performance by Neel Sethi makes this Mowgli a thousand times better than the old one.
They improved certain aspects of Shere Khan’s character too, making him a lot more threatening and giving him a real reason to want to kill Mowgli. However, I find myself enjoying the original Shere Khan more because he was very charismatic and calm rather than overtly evil and raging, which makes him more threatening and interesting. Bagheera, although played by the great Ben Kingsley, is really nothing special compared to the original character. He’s stoic and noble, but the original was as well, and the old Bagheera was a beleaguered and exacerbated social servant which makes him much more entertaining to watch. As for Baloo, he’s played by Bill Murray so there’s nothing else to say there. Baloo is pretty much a toned down bear version of Bill Murray’s usual roles already, so it’s perfect casting. He’s funny, emotional, and the best part of the movie. Unfortunately, because Bagheera is kind of a stick in the mud in this movie, the two characters lack the back and forth camaraderie that made the originals so fun to watch. The original wasn’t even about Mowgli, it was about them and their relationship concerning Mowgli. Even though Mowgli is no longer just a boring pawn of a character and the film is absolutely about him, they should have still focused some time on Baloo’s and Bagheera’s relationship.
The main problem with The Jungle Book is that it is directly based on the original Jungle Book. That is to say, while iconic scenes such as Mowgli’s confrontation with Kaa and King Louie worked in the original, feel kind of superfluous in the new film. All the original film set out to do was make a fun little parable about a boy wandering through a Jungle and encountering a bunch of goofy characters. But this movie wants to weave an epic and mature story, so these scenes feel as if the plot is taking a break. If they made these encounters integral to the over arching story then they would work but instead all they serve to do is to make the movie feel a little uneven and bumpy, which is not helped by the inclusion of songs. Don’t get me wrong, they are fun and great homages to the original movie, but some of them feel out of place considering how serious and realistic the rest of the film is. As for the visuals, this movie is perfect. I refuse to say whether or not the CGI is better than the original’s drawn animation because that’s like asking whether or not paintings are better than statues, but this film is gorgeous. The amount of detail and realism in the animals and the forest is staggering and when Mowgli was interacting with the animals I never once thought about how he was really interacting with air on a six square foot.
The Jungle Book 2016 is a great retelling of the classic Disney story. It updates the original so it can work for today’s audiences, adding on emotional depth and character development where it was previously sorely lacking. However, at times it falters in places where the original was more graceful and tries to copy it in ways that don’t fit its new style. If you want a fun, goofy, and child friendly picture then I couldn’t recommend the original 1967 version enough. But for those who crave a dramatic, intelligent and mature children’s film, then this movie is it. I will give The Jungle Book 2016 a B+.
By Sam Finbury