The Jungle Book Blu-ray
Reviewed by Martin Liebman, August 20, 2016
When Disney was busily assembling The Jungle Book about fifty years ago, nobody involved -- not the storytellers, not the animators, not the voice actors, not anybody involved in the process -- could have imagined that the film could be made any other way. It couldn't be told any other way, either. The story, based on Author Rudyard Kipling's turn-of-the-century stories in The Jungle Book, is one of high adventure, fraught with danger, set deep in the jungle, and features a boy living with, and escaping from, a number of talking and singing animals. That can only be made in the animation department, assuming the world never sees a true-life Dr. Doolittle (a movie which, coincidentally, released only two months after The Jungle Book). Fast-forward to 2016. Anything is possible on the screen. Even talking and singing animals interacting with real humans and real environments. No, Dr. Doolittle hasn't been found and talked the animals into working on a movie set and taking direction. This is the computer age, the age of digital creation. Director Jon Favreau (Zathura) has made use of that technology and reinvented the beloved Disney animated film in a largely seamless retelling that almost passes for real in most of its moments, that features a flesh-and-bone human boy interacting with the world around him -- talking animals included -- in the latest Disney live-action update that's also a hallmark visual effects film.Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is an orphan boy who has been raised by wolves deep in the jungle. He speaks, as does his family, including his stand-in mother Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o), pack leader Akela (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito), and friend Grey (voiced by Brighton Rose), a young wolf cub. He's welcome in the jungle and by the other animals, so long as he, more or less, behaves as one and doesn't use his "man skills" to enhance his life or alter the natural world and animal order around him. Things change when a tiger named Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba), whose personal history with man has left him burned and blinded in one eye, declares his intention to prevent Mowgli from growing into a dangerous man. Khan will restrain himself so long as an animal pact of peace made during a challenging dry spell holds, but when the rains come, Khan will come for his prey. When those torrential rains do come, Mowgli decides to leave the jungle to live amongst his own kind rather than endanger everything, and everyone, he holds dear. With the help of the one who found him as a child -- a kindly, learned, and experienced Panther named Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) -- Mowgli sets off on a perilous journey towards whatever new home awaits him.
This updated take on The Jungle Book is, tonally, much darker than its singing-and-dancing, vibrantly colorful, and often full-of-cheer animated counterpart. While that film did indeed dabble in many of the same themes, it kept open exploration to a minimum, preferring mild peril, cuddly companions, and song. The 2016 re-imagining finds a much more definitive balance between the dueling stylings. While most of the songs have been removed (two key tunes remain) and Mowgli is depicted as dirty, scarred, and even bloody for the duration of the film, there remains an underlying charm beyond harm's way in his interactions with his animal friends, whether the wolves, Bagheera, or Baloo. The favorite bear, voiced by Bill Murray, lightens the mood considerably but plays a critical part in reinforcing themes of family and friendship both as he's introduced and at a key moment late in the film. Director Favreau keeps the film perfectly balanced, never allowing its very tangible frights, or its welcome and familiar lighter moments, to dominate. The film's adventure is perilous, its humor joyous, and its heart obvious. It is, in many ways, a better film than the original, lacking the simplistic charm but finding its center, and its own identity, in its ability to tell a more complete story while maintaining a similar, but not quite so effortless, family friendly balance.
The Jungle Book
does update bits and pieces of the story. Key components of its bookends are noticeably different from the animated version, though the changes fit the structural needs and thematic unfolding that this version presents. Maintaining, rather than evolving, a few portions of the storyline would have lessened this film's dramatic impact and flow. Otherwise, it plays out much the same. Broader sequences follow suit to be sure. Animals are introduced in practically the same order, and the film is lengthened with new content even as it eliminates most of the musical numbers. The digital effects are terrific. Some of the smaller animals, particularly as the operate at medium distance from the camera, tend to look a little less organic, but the big boys -- Bagheera, Baloo, Shere Khan, Raksha, King Louie, and Kaa -- look amazing, down to the finest fur or, in Kaa's case, scale. Movement is organic and natural, and the seamless integration into the live-action world and alongside a human actor is an astonishing achievement. Favreau's direction is smooth and involved, capturing broad action and emotional intimacy alike with visual clarity and an understanding of the movie's narrative flow. Cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix) captures the grandeur, grace, and underlying dangers of the jungle environment -- close-in locations and expansive vistas alike -- with breathtaking precision.
The Jungle Book's 1080p transfer delivers in every area of concern. The digitally photographed image, which frequently displays the textural feel of film, presents the resplendent jungle areas with an impressive complexity of detail and realism. Rough terrain -- grassy, muddy, everything in between -- is matched only by the intimacy of the scars, blood, and caked-on dirt on Mowgli's skin. Digital animal fur is frequently and startlingly complex, reacting to the slightest touch, breeze, or movement. Image clarity is superb, as even finer blade grass, leaves, tree trunks, or, later in the movie, structural detailing in Louie's lair are intimately revealing even from afar. Colors are fantastic. The movie's predominance of natural green, which is varied and vibrant, is the highlight. Mowgli's red shorts and blood are well saturated. Some brighter blues on a peacock, fireball orange, and a few other splashes of color yield amazing pronouncement against many earthy backdrops. Nighttime black levels are handsomely deep. The image features no discernible noise or other source flaws. No obvious compression artifacts are present. This is a wonderful presentation from Disney.
The Jungle Book's DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack is expectedly brilliant and the perfect aggressive yet nuanced compliment to the film. Ambient effects fill film's beginning. The sounds of the jungle -- buzzing insects, rustling leaves, chirping birds -- merge to shape a beautifully balanced cacophony that engages every channel and saturates the listener in the environment. Score is expansive. Musical clarity is terrific as John Debney's wonderful score plays with immersive stage presence, a wide and natural front end, and a seamlessly integrated, detailed, obvious, but not overwhelming, surround compliment. Subwoofer accompaniment is strong, too, helping create a well defined support element to the score. Action scenes are the unequivocal highlight. Animal stampedes power directly through the stage with prodigious low end engagement and seamless directionality, impressive given the heft and volume. A mudslide around the 25-minute mark brings with it unflinching power, again engaging the bottom end to impressive depth and the effect pushing through the stage with enjoyably punishing movement. That's followed with equally weighty rushing water that all but spills through the speakers. Heavier ambient details impress, notably falling rain that engages every speaker for a full-on soak. It's a shame this moment, and all of the other sonic highlights in the film, were not supported -- made even better -- with a track featuring overhead channels, but even at a more traditional 7.1 layout, this track captures all the effects -- from light chirps to heavy growls -- with unflappable clarity. Perfectly dialed-in dialogue finishes out a perfect track. It's clear and well prioritized with a couple of interesting moments of natural reverberation, one when Mowgli meets Kaa and the other within King Louie's lair.