Movies Nobody Talks About - The Jungle Book (1994)

Before director Jon Favreau's live-action/CGI adaptation of The Jungle Book hits theaters next week, let's take a look at one of the more forgotten adaptations of Rudyard Kipling's famous novel.
All the way back in 1994 director Stephen Sommers already attempted to adapt the tale of Mowgli and his animal friends, though with a far grittier tone and a more realistic touch to it, making for one of the more unique adaptations of the source material.

Another good pick as one of the "Movies Nobody Talks About"...


What is Jungle Book from 1994 all about?
Stephen Sommers' The Jungle Book (also known by the title "Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book") is of course based on Rudyard Kipling's famous novel about the jungle boy Mowgli and his adventures in the wilds along with his animal friends as well as some foes.
Yet despite the fact that Stephen Sommers' adaptation was also produced by Walt Disney, the movie actually is very bold in its ambition to strive away from both the classic Disney animated Jungle Book movie and Kipling's original novel, in favor of showing a competely new interpretation of the story. Said interpretation is now grounded far more on realism than any of the ones that came before it ("Dark Knight"-style).

With that said, Stephen Sommers' movie is not anymore about a young kid having fun with his talking animal friends, but rather more of a straightforward adventure flick with Tarzan- and Indiana Jones-like elements thrown into it.
Here, Mowgli is (except for the intro) a grown up man trying to cope with his civilized roots and jungle home and his animal friends that actually don't speak in this film but are just...well, animals he is befriended with.

However, the movie mainly focusses on Mowgli, his actually royal roots and his love for a young lady called Katherine (played by Lena Headey). As he is identified as the missing royal prince that got lost in the jungle many years ago when he was a kid, he quickly gets re-civilized into the world of the humans where he has to cope with learning former royal etiquette as well as some serious prejudices towards him by the other citizens calling him a savage. But as Mowgli then attempts to return to his jungle home and animal friends, he is blackmailed by the shady and sleazy Captain William Boone and his men to show him where the secret Monkey City along with its hidden gold treasure is located.
What ensues is a great kid-friendly yet at times also quite adult adventurous chase to the treasure with some pretty impressive stunt work, great interactions between the characters as well as some quite creepily intense moments.

Adventure time!

But why does nobody talk about Stephen Sommers' Jungle Book movie?
Despite the movie grossing about 43.2 Mio. Dollars domestically opposed to its 30 Mio. Dollar budget, it wasn't that big of a success considering that it was produced by Disney.
On top of that, critical reception to the movie gravitated towards the positive but mainly still was more of lukewarm to mixed as a whole. Even though big names were attached to the movie like John Cleese, Cary Elwes and Sam Neill, who shortly before got a big career push thanks to his role in Jurassic Park, many people had problems putting their finger on what the movie actually wanted to be based on: the Disney animation flick or the original novel?
Supposedly, many people at the time weren't to keen with the idea of telling the classic story from a brand new perspective and with a realistic twist to it. On top of that, despite the movie having a PG-rating, the movie pushes said rating to its absolute limits. With some blood shown and evil henchmen getting killed off by animals like Shere-Khan or the snake Kaa in creepily realistic fashion (despite only being killed off-screen) many parents were surprised at how gruesome, dark and admittedly a bit unfitting for kids some of the scenes in the movie were.
Sure enough the more harsh scenes in the movie are still quite dark, yet in the light of today's standards they are nothing to worry about, so that the movie nevertheless can still be enjoyed by kids.
But considering how hard it was to market such a realistic and partially tonally quite mixed take on the Jungle Book to audiences at the time, sadly the movie quickly got lost in obscurity to this very day.

"En garde!" - "En garde with what?!"

One huge standout aspect about the movie however, is its excellence in stuntwork, or to be more precise, its animal stuntwork.
Without the taking the easier route of using CGI that is common nowadays, Stephen Sommers' relied on actual animal stuntwork in all of the action scenes during the movie. The results are fantastic. Aside from the bear Baloo as well as Bagheera acting very well with the other cast members during comedic scenes, it's especially King Louie and Shere-Khan that deliver the highlights during the movie.
King Louie was utilized very well during the movie. Being an orang-utan, it must've been very easy to work with the ape during the shoots. Visibly having fun, Louie really looks like the actual character from the novel, boasting his trademark crown and goofily mocking persona.
Yet Shere-Khan is on a whole different level. During the action and attack scenes in which the group of evil henchmen get attacked by the tiger, the stuntwork here is creepily realistic. While in most movies you can see an animal more or less stopping just before it's about to catch up to the actor, this is not the case here. In very realistic fashion, the tiger playing Shere-Khan actually really attacks and jumps on to the actors during the scenes making every Shere-Khan attack look heavily realistic and dangerous. Those are hands-down the most (almost too) realistic animal scenes in the movie, where the movie itself suddenly boasts quite something of a horror vibe.

The animal stuntwork is fantastic.

Actingwise, The Jungle Book has actually nothing too much to write home about. While every character in the movie is fittingly likeable or dislikable for kids to grasp the movie's rather straightforward and quite simple storyline, the actors don't have too much complicated material to work with here.
Most of the movie expectedly though focusses on actor Jason Scott Lee as Mowgli as well as the young and beautiful Game of Thrones-star Lena Headey as the female lead Katherine. Both actually have a great chemistry together, even though their love relationship never breaks through the classic Disney outcast and princess formula as seen in Aladdin.
John Cleese, Sam Neill and Cary Elwes though are probably the biggest names attached to the movie. And as nice as it is to see John Cleese and Sam Neill in the movie, they don't have too much noteworthy to contribute or do here aside from the expected. John Cleese is barely anything more than a nice-to-have comedic relief and consulting figure for the protagonists, while Sam Neill does good enough but not too much to be memorable in his role as Colonel Geoffrey Brydon, the good hearted father that ends up believing in his daughter's opinion as well as Mowgli.
Cary Elwes however is awesome as the sleazy main antagonist Captain William Boone. Elwes plays the character gleefully cheesy and so over-the-top that you just love to hate him. Elwes is always awesome in such slimy and greasy in-your-face bad guy roles, and here, it's no exception.

You will love to hate him.

Bottom Line:

Though quite some blocks away from being a masterpiece, Stephen Sommers' realistic take on the Jungle Book can rightfully be considered one of Disney's hidden gems.
Giving the entire story around Mowgli a more realistic take complete with kid-friendly humor yet also some darker moments for the adult viewers, it's additionally topped up with some Tarzan- and Indiana Jones-like elements to overall make for a perfectly good adventure movie.
Though some might find its tonal shifts at times a bit jarring, it nevertheless doesn't hurt the ultimate impression too much that Stephen Sommers' Jungle Book is actually somewhat of a great feel-good-movie with an adventure take on it and some other genre-elements to spice things up.
Despite it not staying too true to neither the Disney animated movie nor Kipling's original novel, it definitely remains one (if not THE) most interesting interpretation of the Jungle Book story in movie form.

Where to see it:
While the movie rarely runs on TV, it's relatively easy to find on DVD.


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