Jungle Book, The (1994)
Release Date: December 30th, 1994 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Stephen Sommers Actors: Jason Scott Lee, Cary Elwes, Lena Headey, Sam Neill, John Cleese, Jason Flemyng, Stefan Kalipha, Ron Donachie, Anirudh Agrawal
s if this was an animated adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated stories, Basil Poledouris’ score is immediately thunderous and momentous, with the qualities of a fairy tale accompaniment. With its booming chorus and light, playful verses, it very much takes on the sounds of a Spielberg adventure, nicely duplicating the fun of such soundtracks as “The Goonies” or “Poltergeist.” The music becomes even more significant, considering the lack of dialogue during the introduction of the film. And with the ensuing daredevilry and thrills, “The Jungle Book” proves to be one of Disney’s most entertaining live-action spectacles.
British Colonel Brydon (Sam Neill) takes on a new post deep in the jungles of India, where he watches over his young daughter Katherine, nicknamed Kitty. With them is their dear friend Mowgli (a five-year-old boy) and his father, bumbling instructor Dr. Plumford (John Cleese), and a small army of local guides. During their stay, the fearsome tiger Shere Khan feels threatened by all of these human intruders, and so attacks their camp one night, wreaking havoc on the civilians and soldiers alike. With horses and elephants stampeding, and tents and wagons catching fire from smashed lanterns, Mowgli soon finds himself stranded in the jungle, far away from civilization.
With no one to help him return home, Mowgli is looked after by a friendly panther, a pack of wolves, and a lone bear – until he grows into an adult (played by Jason Scott Lee). Despite this passage of time, Kitty (Lena Headey) hasn’t moved away; in fact, she’s still very much involved with India and the life of colonial occupation. But now she has a love interest in Captain Billy Boone (Cary Elwes), who becomes a new enemy for Mowgli. “What have we here? An animal … an animal that needs to be taught a lesson in manners, I think!”
Just as Elwes made for an exceptional hero in “The Princess Bride,” he makes for an outstandingly slimy villain here. This is a bit new for Mowgli’s tales, since he must also contend with reappearances by the bloodlusting Khan. Also different in this retelling is the severity of the situations (including torture and violent deaths – though the theatrical rating would still only muster a PG) and the unusually large hierarchy of human antagonists (Jason Flemyng, Stefan Kalipha, Ron Donachie, and Anirudh Agrawal are all memorable, ruthless henchmen). However, with such individualistic (or notably stereotypical) and cruel villains, their creative demises are just that much more amusing, as if baddies from a James Bond mission.
Since the characters are older, there’s also a reason to include romance – the kind catering to young adults. The love story is such a central focus, in fact, that nearly all of the characters’ motives are governed by it. Additionally, there’s plenty of comic relief (mostly by Cleese) and oodles of action – including a chase through a marketplace, as if “The Jungle Book” was combining the exploits of Aladdin into its plot. Likewise, with the Brydons’ interests in teaching Mowgli to speak and behave like a normal human, the Colonel’s insistence that Kitty marry a suitor of whom she’s not particularly fond, and the pursuit of a hidden treasure spoke about in legends, there’s a distinct reminiscence to Tarzan and his more mature interactions – or even “The Mummy” (a curious coincidence, since director Stephen Sommers would go on to direct a version of that story a few years later).
From King Louis (for some reason, the spelling changed from the cartoon’s version of “Louie”) the orangutan and his kingdom of monkey minions, to Bagheera the black panther, to the honey-obsessed bear Baloo, all of Kipling’s popular personas make an appearance – as real animals. In a rare yet utterly convincing process, animal actors are employed for each of these roles, regularly interacting with humans (and only occasionally via green screens or animatronics). It’s a visually fascinating way to craft this story, though it’s unlikely ever to be repeated, considering the public’s increasingly negative views toward utilizing animal actors.
But even with all of the supporting parts by animals, and Khan as an animal antagonist, “The Jungle Book” is intent on examining the inhumanity of mankind. As Mowgli (whose sound effects are primarily those of jungle creatures) shifts from the hunted into the hunter, and as he conducts exercises to test the survival of the fittest, the picture grows comparable to the humorous schemes of Crocodile Dundee or the suspense of “Jurassic Park” or the booby-trapped ruins-raiding of Indiana Jones. Yet despite all the obvious derivations from other productions, the harder edge (for a Disney project) and the continual excitement (which is even swashbuckling at times) contribute to “The Jungle Book’s” consistently high entertainment value.
– Mike Massie