Walt Disney Pictures (April 15 2016), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (August 30 2016), Blu-ray plus DVD, 106 mins plus supplements, 1080p high-definition widescreen 1.78:1, DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, Rated PG, Retail: $39.99
Walt Disney’s swingin’ 1967 animated feature based on Rudyard Kipling’s legendary tale gets a modern-day, photo-realistic update.
The Sweatbox Review:
Oh, oobee-doo! Who would have guessed that director Jon Favreau’s new take on Disney’s animated classic – the last feature to benefit from Walt’s personal touch – would turn out as well as it has, being a Studio update with a twist: it was made by true fans of the first film who wanted nothing less than to honor the original and push the same kind of filmmaking boundaries that the “Old Mousetro” did back in the day. For as well as honing his talents as a master storyteller, Walt was always on the cutting edge of technology, utilising every filmmaking method in making those stories take flight visually and, when a process didn’t exist, he invented it. The use of color and sound were early Disney landmarks, while animation was the visual effects medium of the day, allowing for the incredible and impossible to be put on the screen, with the sodium vapor process predating blue-screen by decades and other notions including surround sound and widescreen images long before they became commonplace. It’s not for nothing that the Multiplane Camera is often referenced by those making the deeper, depth-enhanced 3D animated films of today.
Indeed, Walt was forever pushing boundaries and looking for ways to make his films more believable, often lamenting that an animated feature would take three or four years to produce when a live-action film could be turned around in six-months to a year. I’ve said it before and truly believe that, had Walt not been struck down when he was, his initial tinkering with computers and their development in the Audio-Animatronic process might well have led to the much earlier adoption of CGI, maybe as far back as the mid-1970s and certainly by the time that John Lasseter suggested using the medium in the early ’80s, with a concept that I’m sure would have captured Walt’s imagination and made him excited about animation again. Has this been the case, I wonder if traditional, hand-drawn Disney animation would have lasted as long as it did, or if Walt would have made the switch much earlier. Indeed, would he have perhaps embarked on remaking his classic animated films with the technology for new audiences?
It’s certainly a track that the current Studio has been recently ambitious in pursuing, after a series of live-action but ultimately rather lifeless attempts in the 1990s (101 Dalmatians and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book ironically among them. It used to be that projects were better suited to animation because they wouldn’t have been possible in live-action, but with the emergence of better and better CG, those “rules” have been tossed aside, and the blurring of animated film and live-action has never been more prevalent than in Disney’s recent re-dos of its animated classics. By turns diverting wildly from the source material (Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, the director also has a Dumbo in development) and sticking too closely to it (Cinderella, opulent visuals aside, particularly felt rather redundant, and I do hope the upcoming Beauty And The Beast won’t follow suit and can be its own thing), it seems the best of these endeavors take the best from what came before and update them for today’s audiences, keeping one eye on the future while keeping one foot rooted in the past: despite production troubles and some minor flaws, the excellent Maleficent managed this deftly.
It will always be the ultimate “what if?” question for Disney fans, to imagine the answer to that old chestnut, “what would Walt have done?”, and although we will never know the answer, of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t something pretty close to what Favreau has pulled off here. A self-confessed Disney fan, the director and sometime performer has been an interesting guy to follow, with a career that’s been eclectic to say the least, and often not followed the expected route, much as Walt did. From quirky acting roles (the pitch-black comedy Very Bad Things) and similarly mid-range directorial choices (Christmas perennial Elf), he switched gears to kickstart the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the first and second Iron Man films. However, rather than continue that streak into a third film or even taking on The Avengers, Favreau surprised everyone by opting for a small, extremely intimate film, Chef, in which he portrayed a high-flying restaurant head that takes a hit and decides to head out on the road and effectively find himself by turning his hand to something different.
I haven’t seen Chef billed as such, but for me it seemed this was a very autobiographical movie for Favreau, the big director having somewhat stumbled creatively with the overwrought Iron Man 2 and needing a break from the rut he was close to finding himself in, especially in casting himself as the titular character. Favreau obviously enjoyed making the film, with a small crew, famous friends in various roles and hardly any budget ties, allowing him to – no pun intended – cleanse the pallet and return afresh to the world of large-scale moviemaking. He’s remained a part of the MCU, executive producing various outings in that series and no doubt making himself a well-liked and respected member of the now Disney-owned company. His connections and credentials as a fan go even deeper: when it came to pen an It’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow-styled song for a World’s Fair-type expo in Iron Man 2, Favreau went direct to the source, commissioning Make Way For Tomorrow Today from the legendary Richard Sherman himself, who of course was one of Walt’s The Jungle Book songwriters. Well, it is a small world, after all…
Right from the opening of this new adaptation – billed as mixing the original Kipling texts with Walt’s classic – Favreau makes sure the classic Disney feel is in full effect, with an amazing cel-animated, Multiplane-enhanced (and apparently Technicolor-shot) Studio logo that brings a new dimension to the various Disney castle intros of old. Much as with the retro-feel of the Studio’s title card for the recent Saving Mr Banks, this custom re-do might feel odd at first, being something very familiar but different at the same time, but deeper inspection shows it to be rich in detail. Imagine if the now standard logo had been created by the animation department in 1967 and you’ll get the idea, the really ingenious element being how the artwork subtlety layers away and into the photo-realistic jungle that is the astounding setting for this new version. That the director describes this moment as his proudest achievement in the film says a lot (and, after all, what is Favreau’s company name Fairview Entertainment other than a reflection of Walt’s own original distribution moniker, Buena Vista?).
The nods to Walt and the original film don’t end there, and one of the other insane cool moments that Disney fans will drop their jaws at is the use of the original The Jungle Book prop itself at end of the film in the end credits, of which more on in a moment. Also, in so far as much has been made in this movie’s supposedly sticking closer to the book than Walt’s swingin’ version, it does actually follow those original story beats pretty well, the addition of a handful of characters – including the late Garry Shandling’s Ikki, to whom the film is dedicated – from Kipling aside, from Mowgli’s trekking off into the jungle to avoid the returned tiger Shere Khan and inclusion of the non-Kipling King Louie, to the late introduction of Baloo, a character that gives Bill Murray the chance to steal the film with effortless charm and all the best lines. The entire tone of this Jungle Book becomes lighter here, from the injection of more humor to a brighter color pallet.
This is actually the third official Disney Studio version of the tale, amongst many other Jungle Book titles (including the somewhat bizarre alternate universe animated television series TaleSpin and a direct-to-video sequel, The Jungle Book 2), and those from other producers, the most famous being the Sabu-starring 1948 Alexander Korda version, which was “done for real” with trained animals. This melding of a live-action Mowgli (Neel Sethi in an engaging screen debut) and photo-realistic animation ultimately strides the two most well-known approaches, the CG animals allowing for much more versatility than even the strangely lifeless look of real animals supplanted with CG faces, where the body movement does little to reflect what the head is saying. Here, everything is part of a whole, including Mowgli, who has been filmed with a process akin to being in a motion-capture stage (“Filmed in downtown Los Angeles”, the credits incredulously read, given the epic vistas and totally believable lighting we witness, thanks to cinematographeror extraordinaire Bill Pope).
Of course the big giveaway in that we are not seeing trained animals is that this bunch can also talk, thanks not only to the Moving Picture Company’s amazing visuals but a who’s who of vocal talent, from Murray’s Baloo and Ben Kingsley’s grounded, majestic Bagheera, to Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken and, as the big villain of the piece, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, sporting a General Woundwort-like injured eye. This is the latest in a recent line of Disney voices (Zootopia, Finding Dory) among a big year for the actor (the villain in Star Trek Beyond and toplining the unfortunately themed Bastille Day, which saw its release pushed and pushed back due to real world troubles), but I’ve still yet to find him compelling, especially as a vocal artist. It’s not easy voicing animation, since most of the acting has to be expressed through the voice, but while many of the other actors here pull off their roles effortlessly, Elba just sounds flat to me, with maybe a hint of menace but none of the real threat or danger that a man of his size should be able to convey.
Thankfully, Shere Khan doesn’t really get a lot of screentime other than his intro and participation in the exciting climax in which the visual effects do much of the work, but it does seem to me that the actor’s gruff voice is perhaps more suited to comedy than in trying to portray a real heavy. If there’s one other element that doesn’t quite click in this new Book it’s in the inclusion of two of the ’67 film’s standout musical moments, where it feels as if Favreau isn’t entirely sure of how to work fantasy musical numbers into such a realistically rendered film. By way of a stealth-like method to ease The Bare Necessities in without feeling out of place, it’s kind of teased earlier on, with a clunky line from Murray explaining to Mowgli that the tune he his humming is “a song”. This is then quickly forgotten until the full song then comes crashing in following a successful honey-sourcing sequence (this Baloo, it seems, has a bit of the Winnie The Poohs about him!) and then ultimately doesn’t last that long, seeming like a bit of an afterthought. It’s as if Favreau wants to include the homage but doesn’t quite want to fully commit, the moment never feeling quite as organic to either Baloo (with Murray somewhat channelling his SNL lounge singer act) or the film itself, as Phil Harris achieved in the original.
A slight structural issue with the 1967 film was the peak in the middle of the movie, where its two showstopping numbers, The Bare Necessities and I Wan’na Be Like You come almost on top of each other, and it’s not something that Favreau really attempts to fix here, even if the more expanded storytelling means there’s a little more time that comes between them. I Wan’na Be Like You also serves, of course, as the introduction of a second major character, Louie of the apes, making his return in this version after being created not by Kipling but for the 1967 film. Ironically as children, my sister and I always felt, if The Jungle Book was ever remade, that Walken should be the voice of Louie, our perception of his unique vocal timbre, discovered through his live-action films, being that he sounded like Louis Prima from the ’67 original (or was it that, having heard Walken, that we felt Prima sounded like him!?).
While we were thrilled when Walken was indeed cast as Louie when this new film was announced, my initial reaction was that he wasn’t quite as Prima-esque as I’d imagined, with a slight lack of energy in this darker, less caricatured take. Of course, for this film, it’s the right path to have chosen, and slowly that energy builds, until I Wan’na Be Like You is unleashed in what proves to be the highlight of the film. Walken’s vowels sound a little more rounded than Prima’s did, and perhaps he wanted to hold back just a little to keep his Gigantopithecus more believable even while singing this crazy tune, but he really goes for it in an end credits version, where he can let rip party style. Going back to the use of that original Jungle Book prop, we never saw that original book close in the ’67 film and this update acts as something of an almost literal bookend, with a terrific and highly upbeat finale in which the credits and characters interact with the book (here a dancing, digital creation) in a sequence actually devised by the folks at Pixar, whose Brain Trust also contributed many points to the rest of the film itself.
Even better is the insertion of new lyrics that make reference to Louie’s Gigantopithecus background and help to make him him believable in what is actually an anachronistic setting, with Favreau showing off his knowledge of cinema outside of the Disney realm by evoking Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now and bringing that extra layer of depth to the sequence in the film whether the audience spots it or not. And what a thrill it was to again see Richard Sherman’s name in the credits as the provider of the song’s new lyrics, the very term Gigantopithecus leading exactly to the kind of wordplay that fuelled the best Sherman songs (here being tied to “ridiculous”!). For this moment in the film itself, Weta Digital – due to their extensive experience in computer animating primates (King Kong, the new Planet Of The Apes films) – take over from MPC, and the result is a stunning sequence that really does put Favreau’s modern stamp on this version, but again retains just the right amount of influence from Walt.
Also adding much to the classic Disney feel is John Debney’s lush score, again often referencing many of George Bruns’ 1967 cue while bringing an epic sweep to the new music, which occasionally recalls Out Of Africa (the wrong continent, I know, but the right feel!) in Mowgli’s main theme, enjoyed in the end credits along with an additional Sherman reworking. Here, Johansson proves her emotive vocal role in Her wasn’t a fluke with a huskily sexy version of Kaa’s Trust In Me. As portrayed by Sterling Holloway, Kaa was always an effeminate character and casting the role as female is something of a masterstroke: if only S-Kaa-Jo was given a little more to do in the movie itself (I don’t see a reason why Trust couldn’t have been included, if even briefly). Perhaps this would have tied the new Jungle Book a little too closely to the older film, and although it is ostensibly a remake, it does stand as more of a companion piece.
In the end, for those well versed in the various film translations of Kipling’s stories, The Jungle Book may well feel like a mix of the done-for-real Korda film combined with Walt’s pacier, lighter version. It will be highly interesting to see where Warner Bros goes with its upcoming Andy Serkis edition, originally scheduled to be a competing film but since delayed under the insistence that this was to allow a further pushing of technological motion-capture boundaries. After his Animal Farm fell apart, Serkis won’t want to see another directorial opportunity fizzle, but one must wonder if Warners are smart in continuing with this “darker” approach to the story, especially after audiences’ largely negative response to their DC comics films, less family-friendly than Disney’s Marvel pictures. Before even reaching the screen, it does feel like Warners is playing the catch-up game (again) with a film that’s surely going to be less well-received, and especially as an already announced sequel to Favreau’s film will be coming along.
Will audiences flock to the same story all over again, or will they want to check out the continuation of the one they already loved? It doesn’t take a genius to work it out. Most importantly, and what Favreau appears to understand and insist on in spades, is that old Disney adage of real quality over quantity. Quite what Warners think they are going to achieve with an alternate, apparently more intense film or quite how they are truly going to beat the visuals here is a mystery: Favreau’s milestone is a major step up in visual effects and animation combined with live-action; the care, attention, and sheer thought processes that have gone into the making of this film results in a truly remarkable enterprise that does that very rare thing in making us laugh, making us feel, and genuinely entertaining all ages of the family. Never intending to or supplanting Walt’s 1967 film, this new The Jungle Book can stand alongside it as a prime example of the modern-day cutting-edge that retains the classic Disney feel.
Is This Thing Loaded?
With the promise of a 3D edition for The Jungle Book to come, will fans again smart from the sting that Disney just administered with the announcement of a new set for Star Wars: The Force Awakens? With a pretty decent edition first time around, the assumption had been that the promised 3D release would either be a standalone disc or simply reprise the existing set and bundle the 3D platter in – much to the consternation of fans when Disney recently announced a whole new bunch of extras, including a commentary track. Far from “just” a 3D version, this is the equivalent of an ultimate edition, and Disney may have done well to announce it as such as opposed to pulling such low-punching double-dip practices. The same deal seems to be on the cards for The Jungle Book: a 3D disc has been confirmed as coming “later”, and although details have been scarce, a lack of deleted scenes in this package perhaps suggests a more-rounded set is on the way.
What is on offer here isn’t to be sniffed at, though, and this disc’s centerpiece is The Jungle Book: Reimagined, a 35-minute documentary that eschews the puff to serve up a genuinely interesting slice of behind the scenes material. Refreshingly speaking post-theatrical release, director Favreau, producer Brigham Taylor and visual effects supervisor Robert Legato reflect on the production while copious amounts of before and after blue-screen footage illustrate the huge endeavor the filmmakers undertook. Taking its cue from Walt’s original version, Favreau’s approach to both that film and Kipling’s original book, this is an excellently produced piece that entertains as much as it informs, moving along quickly but never feeling rushed, and Favreau – as well cementing his Disney aesthetics and credentials – again proves what a perceptive and intelligent blockbuster filmmaker he is. Expanding its reach to shine the spotlight on the film’s voices and music contributors, including the legendary Richard Sherman, this is simply wonderful.
Ironically, one of the least featured people in the documentary is Mowgli himself, but thankfully the eight minute I Am Mowgli featurette puts paid to that, focusing on young actor Neel Sethi’s experience in making the movie, from his initial audition and blue-screen shoot through to the finished result. As befitting a kid who landed a role that needed to project a huge amount of appeal so as to make us care for him, Sethi is very charming and doesn’t come over as a Hollywood brat. His grounded and very involving performance in the movie again becomes clear from the way Favreau conceived and set up his shoot so as to give Sethi’s imagination extensive nourishment and the freedom to go wild. Not only is this a nice overview of the film’s leading young man, but you’d be hard pressed not to see it as a beginning for a major new future star in the making.
The shorter, lighter King Louie’s Temple: Layer By Layer takes a peek at the sound and visual elements from the I Wan’na Be Like You sequence, with Walken’s vocals and the score recording session matched up to a mix of storyboard, previz, blue-screen and final render footage for a jazzy three minute clip that may invite much freeze-framing! Often when under review deadline constraints, I usually have to skip through a disc’s Audio Commentary and pick out a certain few scenes to get the gist of the remarks but, being so impressed with Favreau’s approach and comments in the documentary, I made it a point to listen to the entire track here. It’s perhaps not quite as in depth as I had been expecting, but Favreau is still a jovial guy and he gets across a lot of information without becoming too dry, pointing out various little bits and bobs (I was pleased he confirmed the digital Mowgli that I had spotted here and there) and the throwbacks and influences that he intentionally carried over from Walt’s original film.
That this commentary is the final offering in a fairly slim serving of supplements only goes further to suggest that the eventual 3D edition of the film may provide more material than just the movie with an added dimension, although I can’t really think of anything else, trailers aside, that could be added here that wouldn’t come off as superfluous. Deleted scenes? That would be the obvious one, but since the movie was motion-captured beforehand so as to set up the live-action shoot, it’s more than possible that such moments were cut very early on during development and maybe never even staged. If so then this extras package will suffice as a fair general summary of the production itself, although if there is any additional material to be included, I’d personally love to engross myself in it and hang out with this crew some more. Finally, and as opposed to Disney’s usual plethora of previews, the Sneak Peeks are limited to the Star Wars: Rogue One teaser, recent animated hit Zootopia and, via the menu option, the usual Disney Movies Anywhere and Rewards spots.
The initial teaser poster image adorns a nicely but not overly elaborately embossed or shiny slipcover that essentially replicates the sleeve in the regular Blu-ray case beneath. Inside you’ll find an enclosed DVD copy of the movie as well as an elegant but slightly over the top fold-out card that merely gives us the Rewards code that also unlocks a digital download.
Ink And Paint:
As stunning as the movies visuals are, this Blu-ray Disc presents them in exquisite HD clarity. If Disney was thinking about entering the still young Ultra 4K format with a showcase title, then forget Star Wars and the like: The Jungle Book would be it, and I’m sure those conversations have been had. Even the lack of 3D, at this time, isn’t too strongly felt, with a huge depth to the image and lack of grain even in darker scenes. Absolutely the demo disc of the year!
What’s that, you say? A 4K disc release with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack option that approximates Favreau’s initial concept to revive Walt’s Fantasound process? While we don’t exactly get that this time around, there’s no denying that The Jungle Book will still provide whichever system you have with a serious workout, from terrific lower bass rumbles to the high-end clarity of the dialogue and a music mix that’s so lush that it matches the visual depth of the jungle itself.
Made with such an explicit and clear love for both the 1967 animated movie and Walt Disney’s philosophy, Jon Favreau’s new The Jungle Book is an almost textbook example of how to remake a classic without attempting to replace it or end up tarnishing it. The key, it seems here, is to retain the memories of what people remember, rather than specific moments themselves, while providing a valid reason – in this case the advancement of technology – for mounting a new production. To this new film’s advantage, The Jungle Book has the benefit of being based on a story that has seen a number of various versions come before it – and another already on the way if Warners persist with their plans – and so can’t simply be seen as just a remake of Walt’s arguably untouchable classic. Standing apart to be enough of its own animal while being full of the feeling we recall from when we first saw the 1967 version, The Jungle Book was a deserved smash hit. This disc debut sports demo quality audio and video amongst a decent extras package, even if it doesn’t feel particularly solid or robust, and the promise of a 3D edition might signal additional extras (such as those teased by Favreau in his commentary), which fans may feel like holding out for.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?