Reel Rumbles: “The Jungle Book” vs. “The Jungle Book”
Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves in the jungles of India, debuted in 1893 in a Rudyard Kipling story, and was the subject of Disney’s 19th animated feature in 1967. His adventures were recounted on film in 1942 and 1994, and he is already scheduled to appear in more movies later this decade. But there can be only one King of the Jungle. For this Reel Rumble, we’ll pit the most recent Jungle Book movie against what is probably the most famous one: the Disney cartoon from almost half a century ago.
Round 1: Mowgli
Mowgli, the loincloth-clad child raised by wolves, has been many things to many movies. In the feature-length cartoon and in the new film, he is a child fully immersed in the world of the jungle. In the 1942 adaptation, a teenaged Sabu (The Thief of Bagdad) plays Mowgli, and in the 1994 movie an adult Jason Scott Lee plays the character; both of the latter spent the bulk of their films learning to navigate the world of men.
The latest Mowgli, Neel Sethi, is the hardest-working Mowgli of them all. Though just 12 years old, his physical workload in the new Jungle Book appears to have been the equivalent of Leonardi DiCaprio’s in The Revenant —by the end of the movie he is nearly as bruised and bloodied, having fallen and fought and swam his way through the unforgiving landscape. Aside from a couple of extras, Sethi is the only actor physically present in The Jungle Book, but his cheery interactions with his digitally-engineered animal companions make them feel that much more real. This movie also has a lot to say about the nature of mankind, and not in a strident or merely topical way; its observations about the tools or “tricks” that Mowgli uses, and how they throw the rhythms of the jungle out of balance, are well-considered.
The Mowgli of the animated movie must have served as the visual template for Sethi’s simple costume and inverted-punch-bowl hairstyle. His face doesn’t grace as many Disney products as the studio’s princesses, but he is a likable protagonist, the last one created during Walt Disney’s lifetime. The animated Mowgli’s voice was provided by Bruce Reitherman, son of Wolfgang Reitherman who directed The Jungle Book as well as several previous and subsequent Disney features. Bruce’s performance is agreeable and accessible in a way that few of today’s voice-over roles are; that is to say, it isn’t shrill, shouty, ironic, or manic. His voice also brought Christopher Robin to life in the animated adaptations of the Winnie the Pooh stories.
Winner: Neel Sethi. Sethi meets the physical and emotional challenges of the new The Jungle Book movie with courage and charm.
Round 2: The Animals
The furry friends and foes who populate Mowgli’s life are Bagheera (a paternal panther), Baloo (a lazy bear), Akela (an alpha wolf who raises Mowgli in the new film), King Louie (a long-limbed monkey), and the Bengal tiger Shere Khan who has learned to hate humans, even very small ones. There is also a python, Kaa, who stalks Mowgli beneath the boughs of the forest.
The new movie creates a bigger role for the female wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), who sees Mowgli as one of her cubs. Nyong’o as Raksha and Idris Elba as Shere Khan give the most impassioned and heartfelt vocal performances of the new film, with a lot of thoughtful and philosophical, if ultimately villainous, dialogue coming from Elba. Nyong’o and Elba’s voices also benefit from not being as distractingly recognizable as Bill Murray (Baloo) and Christopher Walken (King Louie). King Louie, in particular, is a horrifying figure in the new film, comparable to King Kong in size but without Kong’s humanity. Walken begins Louie’s sequence with a Jersey mob boss impression that soon gives way to a stilted “ooh-ooh” monkey voice, and both modes are embarrassing and off-putting. Murray’s laconic deadpan is right for the character of Baloo, and his gift for comic timing is beyond question, but for adults who are familiar with his work, it’s impossible not to visualize Murray in the recording studio with headphones on and a microphone in front of him. I’d rather just think about the bear. Ben Kingsley, as Bagheera, does good work in a noble, quiet, Received Pronunciation accent that Kipling might have approved of. Scarlett Johansson fails to invent an appropriate voice for Kaa, so it is a mercy when her one, brief scene comes to an end. All of the animals in the new film look spectacular, with photorealistic fur and eyes that betray few traces of their digital origins. Owners of cats will recognize the particular way Shere Khan sits, and dog owners will want to adopt the wolf cubs from Raksha’s litter.
Sterling Holloway voiced Kaa in the animated film, and it is probably his best-known work outside of Winnie the Pooh. In fact, Holloway uses substantially the same voice for Pooh as for the snake. The sonorous Phil Harris does Baloo, and he too is recognizable from other Disney roles like Little John in Robin Hood (Little John is Baloo with a hat.) Bandleader Louis Prima gives King Louis a loose, jazzy, scatting persona. The standout performance from the animated feature is certainly George Sanders as Shere Khan. Without raising his baritone voice, Sanders’ dry wit and brimming self-confidence make his Khan even more threatening than Elba’s.
Winner: The animated Jungle Book contains some of the most memorable voice acting in the Disney catalog, with Sanders, Harris, and Holloway creating the definitive versions of Shere Khan, Baloo, and Kaa. The new Jungle Book has great-looking digital creatures and a few solid vocal performances, but a thoroughly ill-conceived King Louie and a miscast Scar-Jo lead to its loss in the animal category.
Round 3: The Songs
I may not know music, but I know what I like, and it ain’t what Walken and Murray are doing in the new Jungle Book. The new movie uses the same songs as the animated version, but with erratic, un-sing-alongable arrangements. Murray caterwauls “The Bare Necessities” like a drunk karaoke patron, and Walken’s “I Wanna Be Like You” is a crime against the ear, a monotonous, toneless slog. Woe to the parents whose children want to acquire this soundtrack.
Winner: The animated Jungle Book. Needless to say, the original renditions of “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” are far more melodic, singable, and swingin’ than the covers, and the animated film’s haunting closing number “My Own Home” (sung by the water-bearing girl from the human village) has no analog in the 2016 movie. That said, John Debney’s score for the new film is quite affecting, with elegant orchestral arrangements of the songs Murray and Walken vocally butcher.
Round 4: Story and Tone
Walt Disney rejected an early version of The Jungle Book screenplay, as well as some early musical numbers, because he felt they were “too dark.” He must be spinning in his grave over the new movie, which is exceptionally violent for a Disney feature. A wildebeest stampede takes its cues from the traumatic one at the heart of The Lion King, except that it feels more real and Mowgli is caught in the middle of it. Shere Khan is downright murderous, King Louie is psychotic, and there are more jump scares than in some horror films. The plot points of these two Jungle Book movies have a lot in common, from the destruction of Louis’ castle to the use of fire to defeat Shere Khan, but all of the danger is hairier (no pun intended) in the new film, and Sethi’s Mowgli has the scars to prove it. His fraught romp through the jungle comes accompanied with several moments of striking visual beauty that easily outdo the dated animation of the 1967 movie, but the technical upgrades come at the cost of lightness and innocence. It shouldn’t have to be that way.
The animated Jungle Book doesn’t aim for epic — there is no dramatic assassination of Akela, and its Shere Khan isn’t as dark or powerful as a villain like Ursula (The Little Mermaid) or Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty). The movie is relaxed, harmless, and almost dreamlike. Walt Disney instructed his writers to “have fun,” and that’s what they did, building their movie through breezy vignettes that are still fun to visit.
Winner: The animated Jungle Book. The new movie tries to achieve something more than the unpretentious cartoon, and it nearly does, but its grim self-seriousness sabotages the effort. Children’s movies often contain dark and frightening elements, but the darkness in the new Jungle Book is brutally, rather than artfully, executed.
King of the Jungle: The animated Jungle Book. Winning three out of four categories, the animated Jungle Book shows a superior mastery of Jungle Law. How do these movies fall on your Flickchart? If you’ve seen the ambitious and original 1942 and 1994 versions, share your rankings of those as well in the comments below.