It was in 1894 that a collection of stories set in the jungles of India came about by author Rudyard Kipling. When rounded together, these stories are more commonly known as “The Jungle Book”. Over time, it’s been credited as classic literature, but its popularity remains largely through its many adaptions for film and other media. For me personally, everything started with Disney’s live action 1994 film titled “Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book”.
This was it, all my child hood fondness for “The Jungle Book” begins with this movie. As far back as I can remember, it shares a spot along with “The Wizard of Oz” as one of my very first live action movie experiences. Thus, it’s always remained a nostalgic benchmark as the very first time I embarked on an adventure in film, and well before I discovered any of the big titles like “Raiders of the Lost Arc” and so forth. Just about every member of my family had that old VHS tape of the movie, and it just resonated with me as a classic. Truthfully, it wasn’t until years later, around the age of seven or eight that I discovered the more famous animated Jungle Book movie by Disney. No joke, whenever someone mentioned Disney’s “The Jungle Book”, I always thought they were talking about the live action 90’s film. Even more embarrassing, I didn’t even know about Rudyard Kipling’s original books until I was well into my middle-school years. What really shocked me back then was that, despite Rudyard Kipling’s name being above the title, Disney’s 1994 live action version of “The Jungle Book” has very little in common with its source material. It makes this a tricky film to discuss, as it’s certainly not a faithful adaption of a classic source material, but I still have so much love for it as a memorable family adventure film from my child hood.
The movie begins with a memorable tracking shot on a map of India, mixed with a triumphant musical score composed by the great Basil Poledouris. As our venture in the jungles of India begins, we meet Colonel Geoffrey Brydon played by Sam Neill, who’s in command of a settlement where a regiment of the British army is stationed. His little girl Kitty takes a liking to a small Indian boy named Mowgli, and leaves him with a bracelet from her late mother. During a vicious attack from the tiger Shere Khan, Mowgli is separated from the group, and gets lost deep in the Jungle. There, he finds himself in the care of a pack of wolves, and a black panther named Bagheera. Years later, Mowgli grows into a man, but has lost all his humanity.
Through a series of events, he finds himself reacquainted with the human world … and more specifically with his childhood friend Kitty, who’s now a grown woman. Recognizing her mother’s bracelet, Kitty identifies him as the lost boy Mowgli and tires her best to re-educate him back to being a person. Unfortunately for Mowgli, the more he learns of the human world’s greedy and violent ways, the more he wants to return to being an animal. Into his midst comes a savage team of treasure seeking hunters lead by a British officer named Captain Boone. Using Kitty and her father as a bargaining chip, Boone forces Mowgli to lead his team on an expedition into the darkest parts of the Jungle to find an ancient lost city … and more specifically it’s hidden treasure. As you can tell by the synapses, this film plays out less like an adaption of “The Jungle Book” and feels more like “Tarzan” meets “Indiana Jones” ... but is that a bad thing, … well, it depends on how much you love the source material versus a movie experience on its own.
The first of many strengths to the film is the cast, which is comprised of many great talents that I was being introduced to for the first time through this movie. Granted, it was through “Jurassic Park” that I became a fan of Sam Neill, but it was cool afterwards to connect him to a childhood favorite. In my view, Sam Neill was one of the decades most underrated great actors, and this movie highlights him at the prime of his carrier. Another one of my favorite actors who was in his prime was famed British comedian John Cleese in the role of Dr. Plumford. While this certainly wasn’t one of his funniest roles, his presence still adds a lot of charm and likability to the experience. Jason Scott Lee is our star in the role of Mowgli, and it’s his commitment to the part that really drives the film. It’s one of those special cases where an actor just disappears in the role, and everything he brings to the role feels genuine. His animal behavior, his curious expressions, his subtly developed human personality and the way he carries himself never once come across like an actor going through the motions. The image of him running through the jungle with the wolf pack has always stood in my mind as something iconic. I also love the visual of him leaping off a huge cliff side, with a waterfall as a backdrop.
Now let’s talk about Lena Headey as the love interest Kitty Brydon. Obviously, I’ve come to love and respect the actress over the years for her roles in “300”, and especially her portrayal of Cersei Lannister in “Game of Thrones”, but it was through “The Jungle Book” that I had my first crush on her.
While her character is a familiar archetype of both a damsel and a love interest, Lena Headey delivers a solid performance, and infuses the character with a mature, yet extremely lovable nature. She just radiates this natural sense of both joy and beauty whenever she’s on screen, and her chemistry with Mowgli is very genuine. The image of her on the balcony of the India palace always made me feel like she was a live action Disney Princess in a castle. The last star who likewise makes this movie so appealing is Cary Elwes as the villain Capt. William Boone. While I’m sure most people remember the actor best for his roles in “The Princess Bride” or “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”, this is the role I’ve always associated him with the most. While Cary Elwes can definitely make for a charming hero, he also makes for a very charming bad guy. It’s obviously a one-note villain who’s after both treasure and the attractive girl, but Cary Elwes carries the role with so much class, and delicious wickedness. Jason Flemyng is also very enjoyable as his clumsy first man named Wilkins, who everyone tells to hush up ... “Shut-up Wilkins”. There’s also a second villain named Buldeo, who’s familiar with the ancient city our villains seek, and is also responsible for the death of Mowgli’s father at the claws of Shere Khan during the beginning of the movie. This was actually a human character from Kipling’s stories, but he was heavily altered for this films version.
The cast continues to shine with all the animal’s featured in the film, and this once again adds to the appeal of the movie. Every single animal featured in this film is a professionally trained animal, and such a treat when compared to our modern movies and all their CGI animals. All those current live action remakes of “The Lion King” and “The Jungle Book” and their motion captured animals don’t even hold a candle to what this film accomplished back in 1994. Not enough people respect the acting talents of Orangutans, as the one playing King Louie is very charismatic, lol. The only animal who’s both a puppet laced with CGI elements is the snake Kaa, and he’s a serviceable effect. While Kaa isn’t in the movie for long, I still like that he’s the figurative dragon grading the treasure chamber. One little detail this movie always had over the cartoon for me was Mowgli’s wolf companion named Little Grey Brother, as he was one of my favorite animal characters. The bear Baloo is likewise very lovable, and the panther Bagheera is awesome. I should also note that the animals never speak in this version, and personally, I’ve always preferred it that way. The animals on their own convey so much that I feel voice actors would just come off as distracting.
Without a doubt the animal with the most commanding presence of all is the Bengal Tiger named Shere Khan. Ever sense my childhood exposure to this movie, Tigers have been my all-time favorite jungle animal. Unlike most versions of “The Jungle Book”, Shere Khan isn’t a villain in this film, and instead is a neutral force of nature. He’s basically the jungles watchful guardian, and the keeper of the jungle laws. While Shere Khan dose kill Mowgli’s father in the opening, the two never become rivals, and only have one encounter at the very end of the movie. Shere Khan challenges him to see if he’s more man or animal, and in the end, Khan respects Mowgli as a creature of the jungle. While I’ve always loved the concept behind Shere Khan’s new formed respect for Mowgli, the initial stair down between the two is admittedly kind of goofy in its execution. Regardless, this is still my favorite portrayal of Shere Khan, as he brings a great deal of tension to the film without becoming a villain in the process.
The jungle itself is a fleshed-out character with its own magical quality and personality. It’s a tight setting, but it doesn’t come off as claustrophobic, and I always feel swept away by its distinct atmosphere. Not only are the locations and scenery gorgeous to behold, but the jungle itself feels alive with animals in every frame, and details like birds or monkeys in the foreground or background. I’m also a big fan of map paintings, and there’s such a timeless appeal to some of the map painted backdrops.
The ruins of “Monkey City” also provide some captivating designs and beautiful hand-built sets. As my very first adventure movie, this was the film that introduced me to conventions like explorers lighting a fuse that illuminates all the temple interiors and the treasure chamber. It’s something that would be replicated in future adventure films like “National Treasure” and “The Mummy”. On that note, this movie was directed by Stephen Sommers, the same talent who directed both “The Mummy” and its sequel. He’s a natural talent bringing energy, excitement and wonder to treasure hunting adventures of this sort. For example, I love when the temple is first illuminated, as there’s fire igniting from snake statues, and the flames light up various animal pictures, which are all paired with distinct animal sounds. It doesn’t make any logical sense, and is clearly the director being artsy, but it also enriches the setting with a unique atmosphere and mood. The pacing is also really good, and manages to remain consistently engaging without being quiet as action packed or overblown with spectacle. Whenever Mowgli is developing his relations with the humans, or the group is off hunting treasure, I’m %100 drawn in. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a matter of all the right ingredient’s woven together that elevate the films simplicity into something engaging.
I mentioned earlier the incredible opening bailed composed by Basil Poledouris, and his music is another key ingredient that carries the film. He’s the same artist who composed the music for “Conan the Barbarian”, so he’s no stranger to enriching a film with a captivating music track. Speaking of music, this film is likewise responsible for introducing me to classic ballroom titles like Johann Strauss Jr’s “Wine, Woman and Song”, “Emperor Waltz”, and “Blue Danube”. I’m sure we’ve all heard his music in one form or another, and for me, I’ll always think of “The Jungle Book” whenever I hear one of his immortal tracks. The Ball room sequence is another perfectly executed scene that varies through different shifting moods. It starts a little goofy with Mowgli trying to fit in, which segues into a beautiful dance between our two lovers, but then things take a turn when Boone announces engagement plans, which lights a fire under Mowgli. Caught off guard, Mowgli is made a public fool, leading into an emotional breakdown in which he refuses to be called a man.
My absolute favorite individual scene is another one of the more serious and frightening moments, in which Boone takes Mowgli on a tur though his section of the palace. The conversation starts off calm and well mannered, but things gradually get more heated as Mowgli discovers what kind of sick and malevolent man the Captain really is. He then turns left into Boone’s office, which is full of taxidermy animals.
This triggers a mental vision in Mowgli, as he hears the gunshots and horrific animal cries coming from the lifeless creatures surrounding him. This scene was shot with a great deal of intensity, tight edits, and a relentlessly haunting overtone. It’s an eerie, yet very powerful. The scene would later be spoofed by Jim Carry in the comedy “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls”. Another emotional highlight is when the bear Balue makes a noble sacrifice, and takes several bullets in order to protect Mowgli. This scene was always hard to watch as a kid, but I love the way it was shot, especially when Mowgli goes running off in grief, and the color pallet turns Black and White. Now I will admit that for every dramatic highlight, there’s also something really cartoony that doesn’t seem to fit with the tone of the film. One little off-putting detail takes place during a chase scene, in which a man snake charms a rope to become a ladder, and subsequently providing our hero a convenient means of escape. Thankfully there aren’t too many moments like that, but when they happen, it tends to break the mood.
Once we get to the third act, this PG Disney family film takes quiet the dark turn as every one of the villains is killed off in memorable and horrific way.
Boon is eaten by Kaa, poor dumb Wilkins gets shredded by Shere Khan, the one henchman falls off a cliff side, and the death of the villain Buldeo is like something from out of a “SAW” movie. As he’s chasing Mowgli through the temple, he gets sealed in a small room that slowly fills with salt. That scared the hell out of me as a kid knowing that he was in for a slow death, and with absolutely no chance of escaping the sealed-up room.
The most terrifying death of all was the cruel jailer, who after giving Mowgli all kinds of abuse meets his demise by sinking in quicksand. It’s another slow burning death scene as he tries desperately to get out, his comrades fail to pull him out, and then he just sinks into the disgusting black muck. I really don’t know if I should write the violence and darker moments off as a positive or a negative. It’s not material I’d typically want to show kids, but at the same time, the film leaves a lasting impression on us young viewers, and it makes the movie all the more fun to look back on and say “wow, can you believe we were exposed to this as kids, and from Disney … it’s kind of amazing”. Personally, I never felt that the dark or violent moments went too far, as I remember watching this and pulling though it fine. One thing that unfortunately doesn’t hold up very well are the action sequences. The film has great set up, but clumsy fight choreography and awkward staging leaves much to be desired, which is inexcusable sense this movie has a martial arts legend like Jason Scott Lee in the staring role. For example, there’s a scene in which Mowgli fights this big henchman, but it’s awkwardly staged, and looks like two people trying to hug each other to death. The final show down between Mowgli and Boon is another perfect example of great fighting potential that comes off as cringe and goofy in execution.
So, in the end, dose Disney’s very first live action remake of “The Jungle Book” really hold up? Well, it certainly does for me, but that’s also a very personal opinion brought on by my childhood nostalgia of growing up with it.
I know it doesn’t work as a faithful adaption of a great literary source material, but then again, several other note-worth movies have strayed from their respected books, and turned out classics in their own right. Look at both “The Shining” and “The Wizard of Oz” as perfect examples, as neither are judged as faithful adaptions, and are more commonly viewed as just great movies in their own right. 1994’s “The Jungle Book” in my view is a terrific family adventure film. It has just enough of an edge to appeal to adults, but just enough warmth, charm and excitement to appeal to kids. I also feel that with all the different versions of “The Jungle Book”, this film offers a refreshing and unique alternative. While the movie obviously has its cheesy moments, and dated qualities, the majority of it still wins me over. I love seeing real animals performing on film, I adore the cast, the scenery is gorgeous, and I always feel submersed in the films rich jungle setting. More to the point, I feel this film works as a good bridge for kids to transition from kid friendly fun to more adult adventures. I loved this movie back when I was a child, I still love it just as much as an adult. It’s certainly not for everyone, but I hope more people re-discover it over time.
I give Disney’s live action remake of “The Jungle Book” 4 ½ stars out of 5.