Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books have had an odd adaptational history, when people now think of the Jungle Book they usually think first of the light-hearted Disney movie, so when an adaptation like this one comes out that is actually in the mature, aggressive spirit of the books, it’s disconcerting. The 2016 adaptation tried to blend the two tones with results you’d have to be churlish to call disastrous and generous to call in any way successful. It was fine at best, mediocre, safe and generic. Which was everything the trailers for this version looked. But the film itself is actually something a bit special.
The film tells the story of Mowgli, a young orphan raised in the jungle by wolves, who must make a difficult choice when he comes of age and becomes torn between his home, himself, his family and by circumstances beyond anyone’s control.
To dispense with the negatives, the effects are mixed, particularly on Shere Khan and on some of the action shots, when they’re running it looks pretty fake. The film also does have undeniable pacing issues, with what feels like the end of the second act happening about four times. When critics call the movie messy, I can see what they’re driving at.
However, the film has everything the Jon Favreau version didn't, it has characters, it has the atmosphere, it has drama, when Bagheera and Baloo fight it's not a fight it's an argument. When characters look into each other's eyes you feel like they have a connection. If I had been watching this as a kid there would have been scenes that would have terrified me and made me cry my eyes out. I've heard criticism of the tone, that has more in common with something like Lion than with anything out of Disney (unless it's The Last Jedi), but I liked how seriously it took its ideas and how seriously it took its audience. It felt like it was really speaking to its themes and not just ticking off beats for a three-act structure. All the conflicts here make sense and are driven by clear motivations that arise out of these specific characters in this specific situation. It reminded me of The Earthsea Books or Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, young adult fantasy fiction that has a firm grasp on its world and on its themes. The characters are far better realised, distinctive and memorable than anything in the 2016 film, and what's more, the film gives them time to interact, the characters have scenes together that do more than exposit the plot. There are scenes here that are actually really dramatic and powerful that progress the story in unexpected and compelling ways. I'm not going to lie, the scene where Bagheera and Mowgli talk after he has come back to the man-village made me a little teary-eyed. There are quite a few moments where I was genuinely impressed by how mature the film was behaving.
Aside from the occasionally muddy CGI, the film looks great, the colours are wonderful, the lighting looks amazing, and the motion capture does a great job of putting characters into the animals. They might not look real but they feel real. The scene where Mowgli is introduced to the wolves is brilliant and right there at the start, I knew the story was in safe hands.
I might be a little more reserved in my recommendation if this were only in theatres, but since it’s available on Netflix, absolutely watch it.