|Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book|
|Written by Tara O'Shea|
|Tuesday, 15 January 2002|
Stephen Sommers likes fire, treasure, elaborate death traps in ancient tombs, feisty heroines, villains who wear white and good guys who wear black. If your only exposure to Sommers' particular brand of classic adventure film storytelling was "The Mummy" and its amped-up sequel, "The Mummy Returns," then you are missing out on one of the most entertaining films of Sommers’ career, Disney's live-action "Jungle Book."
Loosely adapted from Rudyard Kipling's novel, the 1994 adventure, written and directed by Sommers, follows the exploits of Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee), the Indian boy raised by wolves. When he is discovered by Kitty Brydon (Lena Headley), daughter of stiff-upper-lipped British Army Major Brydon (Sam Neill), Mowgli, who is neither wholly animal nor man, becomes torn between two worlds.
The film begins with Kitty and Mowgli meeting as four-year-old children. Mowgli's father is one of the native guides leading Brydon through the jungle. When the camp is attacked by a tiger called Sher Khan, Mowgli is presumed lost forever. Years later, Kitty recognizes her one-time childhood playmate Mowgli when he has a run-in with her beau Captain Boone (Cary Elwes). Kitty and Dr. Julien Plumford (John Cleese) teach the wild child English and the ways of proper society. However, Boone and his cohorts are more interested in learning where to find the legendary Lost City of Hanuman and the treasures contained within, and will destroy anyone who gets in their way.
Lee is the perfect choice as Mowgli, a character who has no dialogue for the first half of the film. Lee brings his extraordinary physicality to the role, as well as an appealing child-like innocence that is never cloying. Lena Headley plays Kitty with winning grace and charm that almost makes the audience overlook her fatal flaw in falling for a mustache-twirling villain such as Boone. Elwes, best remembered as the swashbuckling hero of "The Princess Bride," trades on his matinee-idol looks, playing the suave, smooth, cultured yet utterly despicable Boone with great relish – and without the need to pick scenery out of his teeth. Cleese as Plumford is a particular delight, providing some of the movie's most entertaining moments, as well as the sweetest. Australian Neill is picture perfect as a British Colonial gruff but loving father who allows his headstrong daughter to follow her heart, conventions be damned.
"The Jungle Book" is a fairly awesome undertaking that involves working with children and animals (Sommers often, in both the featurette and the audio commentary, recalls W.C. Fields legendary advice regarding same). The film was shot almost entirely on location, including an Indian palace, stunningly beautiful waterfalls and forests spanning three continents. The visual effects are simple and effective, and the digital composite shots are subtle enough that, if it weren't for the audio commentary, most viewers would not even realize they were being fooled by technology.
The DVD is visually stunning. The colors are rich and saturated, the images crisp and clean. Fleshtones and black levels are good throughout. The anamorphic widescreen presentation shows off cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía's compositions, which take full advantage of the format. The sound mix makes great use of 5.1, with the ambient noise of the jungle coming from the mains and rears. Basil Poledoris’ score is suitably epic and sweeping, and he gets amazing mileage out of the film's simple theme.
The disc's special features include a remarkably thorough and informative
"making of" special, going beyond the usual half-hour commercial format to delve into the complexity of the production, spotlighting the location filming as well as the trained animal performers. But, as with all of Sommer's DVD releases, the high point of the extras is the audio commentary. Sommers and his longtime film editor Bob Ducsay, who recorded this commentary shortly after recording the commentary tracks for "The Mummy Returns," have a grand old time re-living the production. However, parents should keep in mind that while the film is rated PG, the commentary is more in the PG-13 range (apparently, the trained bear who played Baloo was in a particularly ornery and frisky stage of puberty during filming).