For the most part, I've been pretty impressed with Disney's recent fever of putting a modern spin on their old classics and making them unique through exploring different characters' points of view. I enjoyed Maleficent, as it focused on the villain's point of view and explored an alternate storyline and a different meaning of the word "love" that goes beyond the cliché. And from what I hear (I haven't seen it quite yet), Cinderella does a great job of tying up some plot threads that the original cartoon left loose, adding valuable and meaningful character motivations along the way.
Unfortunately, the 2016 remake of The Jungle Book not only falls short on achieving any of these positive reasons to remake a movie—it fails to even provide a cohesive plot or character development, making for a confusing, clichéd, wholly unsatisfying film that, in my opinion, did not deserve the "widespread acclaim" it got from critics.
The movie starts by playing the same mysterious oboe tune the original intro starts with, which was my first surprise. Was this going to be an exact remake of the original, or a different take like the other films? Maleficent had a wholly unique soundtrack that I actually liked better than the movie itself, but already the movie seemed to be pandering to the audience's nostalgia, as if pleading for them to look past the plot the movie was going to present and just enjoy a walk down memory lane instead.
Honestly, I don't remember much of the beginning of the movie. It's extremely rushed and seems mainly designed to show the audience just how heavy the CGI in the film is. Though the CGI is technologically impressive and the animals' fur looks realistic, the animals lack both beastlike and humanlike looks, making them look unnatural and unemotional. It's disappointing to think that behind it all, Mowgli is the only real character, running and climbing around in a bluescreen studio. I recognize that many movies rely a lot on bluescreen technology nowadays, but this movie seemed to almost brag that Neel Sethi is the only human character in the entire movie as if it were some sort of revolutionary choice on Disney's part. In reality, it makes it very hard to connect with anyone in the film.
The villain, Shere Khan the tiger, is introduced to the film early on, and is quickly and forcefully presented in a dark light so as to engender the audience's hatred against him. It was honestly somewhat conflicting for me as the viewer to hear Shere Khan, who was actually bringing up a reasonable argument against keeping Mowgli around because of the danger of him growing up and burning down the jungle, be rebuked and cowered to by the other animals. The writers of the film seemed to undermine their own reasons for having a villain—they put a modern spin and motivation on Shere Khan's personality while also yielding to old-fashioned clichés of good vs. evil into his psyche for no reason. I was easily swayed to Shere Khan's side through his logic, and his evil appearance did nothing to bring me back. I would have been wholly satisfied if the man-cub had been brought to his man-village and been completely separated from the animal kingdom. Even if that argument had not been brought up, Shere Khan's motivation was based on the fact that his face had been burned by a man (who turns out to be, not surprisingly, Mowgli's father) years before—so of course he would be against the idea of man having a place in the jungle. I'm not saying the Shere Khan in the original Jungle Book cartoon is any more compelling as a villain, but it seems to me that the most important thing here would be consistency—they should have focused either on a believable villain character who was forgiven or redeemed at the end of the movie, or a cruel one that you felt good about seeing die in the end. Disney did neither, and Shere Khan, the driving conflict of the plot, fails as a worthy villain in the story.
After learning a strange unexplained subplot of the elephants of the jungle revered as gods, Mowgli soon encounters Kaa, who is female in this adaptation. Through means unknown, she knows all about Mowgli's story, and somehow gives him a vision of it while seducing him into a position where she can eat him. The scene exists purely for exposition and nothing more, and like every other episodic interaction in the movie, it is extremely rushed and feels unsatisfying when it's over. I think the original movie's position of making Mowgli's origins unknown was the wiser approach. Mowgli doesn't seem to care one way or another how he got abandoned, so we as the audience don't either. This makes the entire encounter with Kaa, like many elements in the movie, nothing more than a nod back to the original cartoon.
The next character Mowgli encounters is Baloo, voiced by Bill Murray. I didn't mind Baloo's character development at first, but his episode did end on a completely forced and unrealistic note: After Baloo and Mowgli spend a montage stealing lots of honey together using Mowgli's technological "tricks" (which is actually one twist on Mowgli's character I did enjoy), Bagheera informs Baloo that Shere Khan is hunting Mowgli down. Rather than simply telling Mowgli this, Baloo makes himself the martyr and needlessly destroys his friendship with Mowgli by saying "Do I have to spell it out for you? I don't want you around anymore." I could not believe that Disney would stoop to adding pointless drama to the story through this line. Of course Mowgli storms off thinking he has no friends to turn to, and Baloo saying to Bagheera "That was the hardest thing I've ever had to do" was utterly laughable when a clear, logical alternative to handling the situation was obvious. I love fantasy films and media, and I can easily get into stories where "unreal" things like talking animals are commonplace, but character interactions in my opinion are the trump card—a character doing something just for the sake of moving the plot along or blatantly creating fake emotional drama kills my suspension of disbelief faster than anything else.
And then comes the character that is most absurd of all, in my opinion: King Louie. Mowgli is brought to an ancient temple by the monkeys of the jungle, and in a completely overdone scene of mystery and a heavily clichéd reveal, Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken), makes odd, indirect small talk with Mowgli behind shadows, finally revealing himself to be not an adorable scatting orangutan, but a colossal gigantopithecus. Now, to be fair, King Louie was not a character found in Rudyard Kipling's original short stories, so Disney had every right to take liberties, but the fact that Louie is a twelve-foot-tall ape completely ruins his purpose in the original story and in this one. Everyone's heard the old joke "Where does a 500-pound gorilla sleep? Anywhere he wants." Being twelve feet tall, Louie likely weighs about 3,600 pounds, using the cubic scaling law. Why on earth would Louie a) "want to be like [Mowgli]," and b) need fire to rule the jungle? Baloo even marvels at his legendary size. It doesn't help my enjoyment of his character that he spontaneously bursts into song in front of Mowgli, even going so far as to (appropriately) rhyme "gigantopithecus" with "ridiculous." Is this a musical or isn't it? Baloo sang his obligatory "Bare Necessities" earlier in the film, but at least he gave an explanation (though lazily undeveloped) of his love of music to Mowgli. Louie's character is utterly pointless, and he was clearly used exclusively by Disney as nothing more than a source of shock value and a chance for another scary animal to chase and narrowly miss killing Mowgli and instead crush himself in his own temple's rubble (but don't worry, kids, the invincible "fire-needing" ape emerges unscathed in the end credits for an unfitting reprise of "Wanna Be Like You").
The rest of the movie is a blur of ridiculous resolution. Mowgli, finding out that his surrogate father Akela was killed, decides to confront Shere Khan by doing exactly as the tiger had predicted—stealing fire from the man-village and carelessly burning down half of the jungle on his way back (which appears to take about an hour, despite his original journey taking days). When Shere Khan points out that he was completely right all along, the jungle animals look forlornly at Mowgli, but do they logically accept that he is too dangerous to live with them? No! They instead inexplicably side with him against the tiger! Is Shere Khan a ruthless tyrant? Sort of. But killing one wolf alpha and slightly brainwashing his cubs pales in comparison to Mowgli utterly torching an entire section of the jungle and the beasts within it. Shere Khan's utter confusion at their stand against him mirrored my own as they charged at him, buying time for Mowgli to "fight him like a man."
Apparently, fighting someone like a man in the movie meant running away to a burning tree, luring Shere Khan onto a conveniently broken branch, and swinging to safety on a hastily-made rope swing. I was disappointed that this scene even included monologuing by Shere Khan, on top of everything else. And the CGI almost makes you forget that fire is not the only danger in those situations—fleeing into a burning thicket would have caused Mowgli to succumb to smoke inhalation very quickly.
In the end, the animals somehow find it in their overly lenient hearts to forgive Mowgli, and rather than accepting his place as a true man for what he has done, Mowgli instead decides that his true place is with the animals, tricks and all. This, along with the female wolf Raksha ridiculously becoming the new alpha to shoehorn in some feminist propaganda made the ending of the movie entirely unsatisfying to me. What is the theme here? That you can be whatever you want? That you shouldn't listen to others? That you should? Just the fact that Disney made this movie was probably enough to make it a success. If any other studio made a film this rushed and CGI-laden, acclaim would have been replaced by harsh criticism.* Even existing critics' reviews of the film seem to be based on such empty praise as "it handsomely revives the spirit of Disney's original film," so it's anyone's guess how this muddled film would have done on its own as a lone release by a different studio, or if it didn't have an all-star cast. Even with the older Disney film in mind, any theme in the 1967 cartoon is lost in this adaptation, leaving this version unconvincing, uninspiring, and ultimately, unnecessary.
*See Warcraft (2016 film)