Director: Stephen Sommers
Cast: Jason Scott Lee, Lena Headey, Cary Elwes, John Cleese, Jason Flemyng and Sam Neill
Plot: Separated from his family after a vicious attack from Shere Khan, Mowgli (Lee) learns to live in the wild. Years later, he is reunited with mankind.
With all of these Jungle Book live action remakes coming out faster than a speeding Bagheera, I thought it would be a good time to revisit an old favourite of mind, the oft-forgotten Jungle Book live action that moves away from the cutesy animated Disney film and focuses more on the original Rudyard Kipling text. For this reason, the 1994 Jungle Book loses a lot of its cutesy appeal, probably losing the majority of fans, but look again – this is a solidly built action adventure movie.
And in all honesty, the cuteness factor isn’t entirely gone. In switching the action to real people and animals, we have lost the singing Phil Harris version of Baloo (although John Cleese does slip in an appreciated nod to the famous tune). We don’t even have the Jon Favreau and Andy Serkis approach, where the animals are brought to realistic life with top notch motion capture and photo-realistic CGI. No, Stephen Sommers literally hires animal actors to bring his movie to life. The golden rule for directors is never work with animals, but Sommers throws the rulebook aside and builds up his movie entirely on the backs of animal actors. And there is a strong argument to be made that the animal actors outshine their human co-stars here, rarely coming across like an animal that has been forced on to a set and forced to vaguely do what the script asks it to do. In fact, the animals seem to be having the time of their lives. Admittedly, most of Mowgli’s main ensemble, Baloo (played by Casey the black bear), Bagheera (played by Shadow the black jaguar) and Grey Brother (Shannon the gray wolf), spend most of their screen-time lazing around in the sun – Shadow the Jaguar looks like he has nabbed his dream role, sun-bathing throughout half of his scenes. But to say that this is a movie hindered by its real animal cast is to do Sommers a disservice. For one, they are just as adorable – in my books, more so – as real critters than the cartoon versions we grew up with. Baloo, from that first moment when Mowgli finds him trapped in a log, is instantly likeable. He radiates charisma, especially in a scene where he pretends to attack Mowgli in front of a girl, acting as the ultimate wingman for his human friend. On top of the allies, we have Shere Khan and King Louie, playing the villains of the piece. Of course, Louie’s giant orangutan is a barrel of laughs and personality, as most apes are, but Shere Khan definitely impresses, Bombay the Tiger trained to carry out fight scenes without harming the human actors. The only animal who lets the team down is the giant anaconda, Kaa. The inability to train an actual snake leaves the director with little choice that to film extreme close-ups and throw in some appalling animation. Kaa is, thankfully, trimmed down to the bare minimum to lessen the flawed appearance, but it definitely leaves a hole in Jungle Book’s beloved animal ensemble.
Sadly for some, but understandable given the circumstances, Sommers takes his action away from the animals and focuses more on Mowgli’s reintroduction to mankind. The film definitely staggers here, feeling weaker than the twenty-minute opening where Mowgli had nothing but animals to act alongside. In terms of Disney movies, we begin to feel that this Jungle Book is slowly evolving into something more akin to Tarzan. But it is here, where Sommers finds the meat of his story. This film is effectively a mirror that the director is holding up to humanity, pondering questions about what makes man so human. If it is our morals then Sommers argues that the animal cast, only killing out of survival, is doing a far better job at upholding our human nature. There is a thought-provoking piece of dialogue in this movie where Mowgli simply does not understand the words ‘enemy’ and ‘hate’. These are concepts created by humanity, echoed in the fact that Mowgli holds no ill will towards Shere Khan’s killing of his father. It was just the food chain; nothing personal. With the character of Mowgli, we are given someone who gets to choose their belonging – man or animal. It is a strong train of thought and this is what elevates Jungle Book’s remake from the pack; its ability to find a new direction to take the material.
By the final third, we have abandoned the moralistic musings and Sommers is delivering on some action to make up for his weighty middle act. Stephen Sommers went on to make The Mummy and it is clear to see echoes of that in his choice of tale. The nasty British officer, Cary Elwes, sniffs out the prospect of treasure hiding in the jungle and bullies Mowgli into giving up the gold. The story ends up in a tomb echoing the tone of the Mummy movies. This is where Sommers definitely shakes off the cute factor, brazenly pushing the PG rating on the film, as the various characters fall afoul of death traps, quicksand and various jungle creatures. But for older fans of the story, it gives Jungle Book the kick it needs. Jason Scott Lee might seem an awkward fit for Mowgli at first, his acting feeling a little wooden, but it eventually fits the picture the movie is trying to paint. His awkwardness makes him endearing, which adds depth to the perhaps slightly illogical romance between him and Lena Headey. Jason Scott Lee is definitely adept at the action, coming across as a hulking hero. It makes the end of the film a thrilling ride. No, it might not be as cute as you want it, nor is it the kind of remake you can happily connect with the animated classic – but it remains an enjoyable adventure movie that keeps drawing back this audience member.
Final Verdict: Solid fun with some thought-provoking morals to chew over. Best of all, an animal cast that totally outshine the humans. Sorry, John Cleese.