Latest reviews of new albums:
The Jungle Book
  • Composed by John Debney
  • Walt Disney Records / 2016 / 74m

One of those stories that gets a new film treatment every few years, this 2016 version of The Jungle Book is a “live action” remake by Disney of their 1960s animated version.  It’s been just over twenty years since the last major Hollywood version, which was directed by Stephen Sommers in 1994 and only modestly successful – this one, directed by Jon Favreau and starring youngster Neel Sethi as Mowgli, with the voices of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson and various other big names seems set to provide the company with a big hit.

Favreau hasn’t always been able to use him but his favourite composer is John Debney and this is their fourth film together (after Elf, Zathura and Iron Man 2) and offered the composer a rich musical tapestry on which to build.  He incorporates some music from the Disney animated version into his score (in fact part of George Bruns’s original score is the first music heard after the Disney logo music both in the film and on this album) along with snippets from the classic songs.

John Debney and Richard Sherman

John Debney and Richard Sherman

Debney’s score – after the logo music and the Bruns – gets straight into a rollicking action theme in “Jungle Run” before the score’s chief asset (what I assume is Mowgli’s Theme) is introduced for the first time in “Wolves / Law of the Jungle”.  It’s clearly inspired by those long-lined romantic Jerry Goldsmith themes of the mid-1990s (Medicine Man‘s “The Trees”, Powder, Star Trek: Voyager) and it’s an absolutely beautiful, soaring theme which is very welcome whenever it appears.  In “Water Truce” Debney pushes the jungle atmosphere with drums and atmospheric winds accompanying the theme while introducing an adventurous B-section.

Water droplet effects (again recalling Medicine Man, though they’re acoustic here) cleverly usher in the beautiful “The Rains Return” before a passage highlighted by heavenly choral accompaniment and then “Mowgli’s Leaving / Elephant Theme”, a soaring presentation of Mowgli’s Theme followed by a melody which is just as majestic and awe-inspiring as an elephant theme should be.  After that comes the first real action music, “Shere Khan Attacks / Stampede”, which is frantic and furious, brassy and percussive, reminding me a bit of James Newton Howard (at his best) but the fanfare motif which runs through the first part of the cue in particular is pure Goldsmith.  It’s great.  “Kaa / Baloo to the Rescue” opens with much darker material, tense music for strings and winds, after a couple of minutes turning more ominous still with a quote from the “Trust in Me” song from the horns before a shimmer of light from the main theme for solo flute briefly comes through the darkness.

“Honeycomb Climb” is much more light-hearted, a really nice piece evoking adventurous, youthful curiosity and discovery.  In “The Man Village” there’s a tentative feeling, not quite sure what to make of it all, gently stepping towards somewhere before pulling back and trying again, eventually settling on a delicate take on the main theme.  The score plunges back towards darkness in “Mowgli and the Pit”, which is full of sinister danger for a while before a pleasantly languorous arrangement of the classic “The Bare Necessities” for strings.  Then comes some of the most thunderous action music in the score, “Monkeys Kidnap Mowgli”, which somehow also manages to be wonderfully intricate.

There’s a mysterious feeling as “Arrival at King Louie’s Temple” gets underway, which is a fairly long (but never dull) suspense cue.  “Cold Lair Chase” starts off by continuing the suspense but it’s not long before it goes full-on action, the extended percussion section being given a real workout, a rising two-note figure from the horns and trombones (Goldsmith again!) ushering in the most unexpected of action motifs.  Debney pushes things further in “The Red Flower”, giving the action a bit of an epic feel.  “To the River” continues the thrills before taking a darker turn, which bleeds over into the excellent “Shere Khan’s War Theme”.  “Shere Khan and the Fire” is perhaps the best of all, five minutes of non-stop thrills which leads to an exceptionally dramatic conclusion.  After that, “Elephant Waterfall” is the perfect follow-up, with a superb, soaring version of the theme.  A little burst of “The Bare Necessities” in “Mowgli Wins the Race” then takes us into the finale, “The Jungle Book Closes”, which is a sweet and lovely arrangement of the wonderful main theme.

Along with Debney’s score, the album features four songs, new takes on the classics from the animated version.  “The Bare Necessities” (the only survivor from the batch of songs written for the film by Terry Gilkyson) gets two takes, in fact, one by Dr John and the Nile Trippers which is OK and one by Bill Murray which is great.  Christopher Walken’s version of the Sherman Brothers’ “I Wanna Be Like You” is even better and there’s a lovely performance of the duo’s “Trust in Me” by Scarlett Johansson.  The Jungle Book may not quite be one of John Debney very best but it’s not far from it, probably the best thing he’s done since the best thing he’s ever done, Lair – it’s an old-school (by old, I mean 1990s) adventure romp full of memorable melody, wit and charm, not to mention great compositional technique.  At times it’s the closest thing to a Jerry Goldsmith score we’ve had since the great man left us, not just in the specifics of how the main theme sounds but in the construction of the action music (with a dollop of James Newton Howard in there too), and while as a result it’s certainly not the most original film score, it’s faultlessly entertaining from start to finish, with never a dull moment.  Those of a certain vintage are going to absolutely love it.

Rating: **** | |

Tags: , ,

  1. Momo SkySky (Reply) on Monday 18 April, 2016 at 15:09

    Can’t wait to see the film and hear the score! Debney is SO GOOD when he wants to be; between Cutthroat Island, Lair, Texas Rising and White Fang 2, he’s composed some of my favorite moments of music.

  2. ANDRÉ, Cape Town. (Reply) on Monday 18 April, 2016 at 17:50

    Friends raved about the CGI recreation of the animals, the primeval jungle setting (“everything looks so real”) and the stellar vocal cast who, thankfully, use British- tinged English [which means NO mumbling, slurring nor incoherent dialogue]. “And the music” I prompted: “Does DEBNEY’S music emulate the remarkable ‘Jungle Book’ score by MIKLOS ROZSA”? While they were impressed with DEBNEY’S music, they raved about the ROZSA score that, compared with what 21st Century composers are producing, is a masterpiece (we are allowed points of reference when analysing scores!). Sir Alexander Korda directed ‘The Jungle Book’ in 1942, and ROZSA’S music cleverly used instrumentation to capture the inherent nature of each animal. His underscore is sumptuous, and the theme for ‘Song of the Jungle’ is exquisite… the use of a wordless Male chorus in the CHARLES GERHARDT recording [from the album ‘Spellbound’ – The Classic Film Scores Of MIKLOS ROZSA] adds an ethereal resonance to this very beautiful theme. And the sadness that permeates the lullaby for Mowgli’s mother is heart-rending. ROZSA’S score has “the distinction of being the FIRST American made feature motion picture to have its score recorded for COMMERCIAL release as an album.” RCA released three x 78-rpm vinyls in 1942. My COLOSSEUM CD combines ‘Jungle Book’ with ‘The Thief of Baghdad’ and Klauspeter Seibel conductes the Nürnberger Symphoniker. I’ve always admired DEBNEY’S scores, and after reading your review, James, I will definitely order a copy…PLEASE, James, have a listen to the ROZSA score.