Everyone has those films and miniseries that never fail to brighten their day, comfort films if you will. For me, one of those films is the 1994 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The film combines talented actors (Lena Heady, Cary Elwes, Jason Scott Lee, Sam Neill, and John Cleese), real animals, gorgeous scenes shot on location, an amazing score, adventure, betrayal, a historical setting, and true love to make a wonderful film still look amazing twenty years later.
Directed by Stephen Sommers, The Jungle Book was originally supposed to be an independent production. However, the Disney Studio heard about the project and became involved, allowing the budget to be nearly doubled. Since the movie was shot on location in India (with some scenes shot in the US), this made a serious impact.
The story was adapted and written by Stephen Sommers, Ron Yanover, and Mark Geldman while the score was written by Basil Poledouris. The score is epic, and the themes are woven throughout the film in a masterful way. Poledouris wrote many scores, including that of the 1990 film The Hunt for Red October, the miniseries Lonesome Dove, and 1993’s Free Willy.
Because I enjoy looking behind the scenes, I had to learn about the film process, specifically the use of live animals. The use of real animals delighted and fascinated me as a kid. One of my favorite things about this movie is that all the animals are real except for the python, who is a combination of CGI, animatronics, and puppetry (apparently, snakes are difficult to train). Otherwise, the movie had over 200 trained animals, including 50 trained tigers.
Whenever an actor was face to face with one of the cats on set, a blue screen was used for safety reasons. It’s also interesting to note that when there are scenes of tigers killing people, the actual actors were not involved. There was a set of stuntmen who were trained to work with the tigers, and the tigers were trained in a game that looks like a mauling.
One of the trainers mentioned in an interview how much he and the other trainers enjoyed working with Jason Scott Lee (Mowgli) because the animals liked him and he understood how to be an effective animal co-star. In that same interview, the crew remembers there was a feeling of apprehension when they took a tiger and let it loose on set so it could chase after a stuntman. Even if the two were buddies and just playing, it was still a frightening concept. The result, however, is a magical film.
While the story is not exactly Kipling’s, it still has the adventure of the Mowgli stories. Sam Neill narrates and plays Geoffrey Brydon, a Colonel in the British Army headed to his new command in Colonial India with his 5-year-old daughter, Katherine (called Kitty), his friend Doctor Plumford (John Cleese) and their guide and his 5-year-old son, Mowgli. Mowgli and Kitty are childhood sweethearts of a sort, setting the stage for their future romance.
While they are traveling to their destination, a hunter, Buldeo (who is right out of Kipling’s works) and his friends are discovered to have broken the Jungle Law; kill to eat, or to keep from being eaten (it’s nice and simple). When Shere Khan, the Keeper and Enforcer of the Law, arrives in camp to kill the offenders, Mowgli’s father interferes. He saves Buldeo and is in turn killed. In the chaos, Mowgli becomes separated from the camp and is presumed dead.
Of course, he’s not dead. Mowgli grows up in the jungle, learning to listen to the animals and to keep the Jungle Law. When monkeys steal a bracelet he got from Kitty as a child, he follows them to Monkey City, which has been lost for centuries and is full of treasure. Mowgli fights a great snake and wins, earning the respect of the monkeys.
Meanwhile, Kitty Brydon has grown to be a smart young woman, almost too smart to fit in with the other proper young British ladies. When she meets Mowgli in the jungle, she sets off a chain of events that will change her life forever. Re-meeting his childhood sweetheart, Mowgli is drawn to her, and as a result, drawn to her world. As he is drawn to her and her world, Kitty finds herself drawn to Mowgli and his world, to the chagrin of her father and her suitor Captain William Boone, played by Cary Elwes.
Kitty sees Mowgli’s bracelet and recognizes him as her friend Mowgli while officers Boone, Wilkins, and Buldeo the hunter figure out that Mowgli has been to Monkey City. They are convinced that he can lead them to the treasure, and when Kitty and Doctor Plumford begin to teach Mowgli about “civilized” life, they realize that his learning to speak again will be helpful in achieving that end.
As Kitty and Mowgli grow closer, Boone is determined to marry Kitty and possess the treasure of Monkey City, both at whatever cost necessary. His hostile actions kick start Mowgli’s internal conflict in earnest, and Mowgli is torn between his old world and his new one. Man does not keep the jungle law, and Mowgli struggles with what he is and what he has been taught, a struggle brilliantly acted by Jason Scott Lee.
Eventually, Mowgli returns to the jungle, but in an attempt to blackmail him into leading them to the treasure, Boone and his men kidnap Kitty. In return for her safety, Mowgli agrees to lead them to Monkey City but makes no guarantee that they will survive the journey. Along the way, they all face treachery, the elements, death, and, eventually, Shere Khan himself.
The talented cast makes the story that much better. The often times misguided but well-meaning Brydon and Plumford are shown to grow and change throughout the film and they are played wonderfully by Sam Neill and John Cleese. Cary Elwes is brilliantly diabolically charming as Captain Boone, showing the character’s ruthlessness and still being, at times, likable. Lena Heady and Jason Scott Lee are both able to convey their characters’ confusion and struggles throughout the film while also having great chemistry; they make Mowgli and Kitty come alive.
Full of swashbuckling adventure, this film has more in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Mummy than the 1967 The Jungle Book. It has all the aspects of a good adventure film and is a really sweet love story. To me, if you boil it down, the story is really about two people who are torn between two worlds and the love that helped them bridge those worlds, all wrapped up in an epic adventure film that is based on the work of a very talented storyteller and created by a talented team of filmmakers.
The use of real animals, the actors, the setting, the adventure, the romance, and the epic score makes this movie one that should not be missed. Although it is not readily available on DVD, it is available on Amazon Prime. This is one Disney treasure that will hopefully soon be re-released out of the Disney Vault. Maybe when the new Jungle Book adaptations start coming out, we’ll be flooded in copies of this underrated gem? We can only hope.
Have you seen this movie? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!
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