Regular readers of this space will know that as a former Disney animator/ story/gagman and recovering studio executive, I have spent almost 30 years as a creative member of the Walt Disney Company in one way or another. As a kid I loved all the Disney classic animated features and couldn't wait to work for that magical company when I grew up. I never did grow up, but I did get hired at Disney Studios when I was 21 years of age.
Having just seen the new version of The Jungle Book I think I have the moral and creative authority to offer you my thoughts on it. Movie reviewing is not my thing, but having strong opinions on stuff, especially stuff I've spent my life involved in, is not only my right but also my obligation to share with my readers. So here we go. Oh, before I begin I should tell you that I am no longer part of the Disney organization. My opinions are mine alone for better or worse. Okay, now let's get started.
Walt Disney's original Jungle Book (based on the stories by Rudyard Kipling) was released theatrically in 1967, which was when I first saw it. At that time I thought it wasn't quite up to the high level of the older classic animated features, but there was plenty to it that I did like. I liked the characters especially Baloo the bear and King Louie the orangutan and the relationships between them all. I liked the two best songs, "Bare Necessities" and "I Wan'na Be Like You." As a tight story however, the picture left a lot to be desired, it tended to be mostly episodic, featuring a series of funny character vignettes strung together.
The Jungle Book, which would be the last animated feature that Walt personally worked on, was a tremendous box office success, ending up as the fourth highest-grossing movie of 1967. Creatively it may not have been up there with Snow White or Pinocchio but it was lots of fun and audiences loved it.
Which brings us to the Disney Company's 2016 version, a live action/CGI picture directed by Jon Fareau. As an old-school Disney traditionalist I had doubts about what this new take on the Jungle Book would look like. I'd heard that it was to be live-action with extensive computer imaging used throughout. I'm generally not a big fan of CGI technology interwoven into liveĐaction since too many times the tech part is way over done and looks phony. This time it worked. The entire production was seamless. It brought the animals to life in a truly magical way.
The background sets, also computer rendered, were gorgeous and blended perfectly with the characters. The only real human who appears in the picture was the man-cub Mowgli, played by young Neel Sethi, who worked so well with the CGI animals that you'd swear it was all for real. He was quite good and never showed any of the usual Hollywood child actor mannerisms that we generally have to put up with in contemporary movies and TV.
As a bonus, the picture did not engage in the politically correct preaching that we find in many pictures today. No left wing agenda, no messages. How refreshing!
And here's the real surprise, there is no vulgarity in the film. None at all. No bathroom humor, no dirty words, no sexual innuendo, no bodily fluid jokes, no flatulation. In short, none of the vulgar cheap shots that most movies specialize in today in order to cater to young audiences (they claim). There are strong violent moments, some dark scary stuff that might not be appropriate for children under the age of ten or so, but mostly it's a great family film that has all the right elements to be a classic in it's own right.
As far as the animal voices are concerned, I really missed Phil Harris as Baloo and Louie Prima as King Louie, but in all honesty, who today could possibly have outdone those two? Christopher Walken did a credible job with his mobster wise guy version of King Louie, but I wish Bill Murray had put a little more into his Baloo.
It was clear to me that the film makers wanted to create a modern take on the Kipling stories, appealing to young audiences, using today's state-of-the-art technology, while at the same time paying homage to Walt Disney's original hit. They succeeded on all levels. This picture doesn't try to take the place of the 1967 animated original, instead it finds it's own special place with moviegoers of 2016.
I think Walt would have approved.