Home > Reviews > THE JUNGLE BOOK – John Debney


junglebookOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of short stories, The Jungle Book, has been a source of inspiration for filmmakers for decades. A series of stories about the adventures of the man-cub Mowgli, who is raised by wolves in the jungle after being orphaned as a baby, the book chronicles his encounters with the good-natured bear Baloo, the wise panther Bagheera, the seductive and untrustworthy snake Kaa, a gang of monkeys who try to kidnap him, and the menacing tiger Shere Khan, while he learns important lessons about life and man’s relationship with nature. Prior to this year, the most popular and influential version of the story was the animated musical made by Walt Disney in 1967, which introduced a whole generation to the story via popular songs like “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You”. For this new live-action version, director Jon Favreau returned to the slightly more serious tone of Kipling’s original stories, but followed much of the basic plot of the animated film, while simultaneously creating staggering photo-real environments for Mowgli to play in, and astonishing CGI animals for Mowgli to interact with. The film stars 12-year old newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli, and features voice talent that includes Bill Murray as Baloo, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, and Christopher Walken as King Louie, leader of the Bandar-Log monkeys.

The original 1967 Jungle Book was scored by George Bruns, and had original songs by Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman, and Terry Gilkyson – large footsteps in which to follow for composer John Debney, who was tasked with writing the new score. Debney basically grew up on the Disney lot, where his father was a producer, and clearly has a great respect for the studio and its heritage. As such, Debney approached scoring The Jungle Book with a real sense of purpose, trying to simultaneously pay homage to the music of his childhood, while bringing his own style to the film to bring it in to the 21st century. The end result is a triumph on every level, compositionally, emotionally, and historically, which combines some astonishingly beautiful passages of fully-orchestral glory with rampaging ethnic action music, as well as some brilliant and unexpected references to the song melodies that so many people love. It’s an ‘old fashioned’ score in the sense that it is not afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve, and in the fact that it has recognizable themes and melodies, but for me this is exactly what makes it succeed at such a high level.

The score was written for a 104-piece orchestra and 50-voice choir, recorded in Los Angeles, with added soloists playing Indian tabla percussion, bamboo flutes, and other exotic instruments. Right from the get-go Debney earns my respect by directly quoting George Bruns’s serpentine bass flute theme from the original film in his “Main Titles,” before launching into the first of several action sequences in “Jungle Run,” a breathless collision of the full orchestra and tribal percussion, performed at breakneck speed as Mowgli sprints through his verdant home.

Debney builds his score around three recurring main themes: one for Mowgli, one for Shere Khan, and one for the majestic elephants whom the other animals revere as the almost god-like creators and guardians of the jungle. Both Mowgli’s theme and the Elephant theme are related, tonally, and usually begin as flowing, elegant woodwind passages, accompanied by a delicate wash of strings, before segueing into the full string section as they develop. They first appear, sequentially, in “Wolves/Law of the Jungle,” and stylistically come across as something John Barry might have written for a film like this, crossed with Jerry Goldsmith at his most lush and emotional – the theme for ‘The Trees’ from Medicine Man, perhaps, or his theme from Star Trek: Voyager.

These themes are the emotional backbone of the score, representing not only the specific characters themselves, but also their relationship with nature, the jungle, and the symbiosis the animals share with one another in the great eco-system of life. The restatements in cues such as the magnificent “Water Truce,” the dignified “Mowgli’s Leaving/Elephant Theme,” the playful “Honeycomb Climb,” and the sentimental and longing “The Man Village,” are just lovely. Throughout these cues Debney’s frequent extended passages for flutes are exquisite, and are worthy of special mention for their poignancy and tenderness. In fact, all the instrumental flavors Debney uses in this score are worthy of special praise, especially for the way they conjure up so much evocative imagery. The feather-light woodwind writing in “Water Truce,” the shimmering chimes and gongs that open “The Rains Return,” the brief growl of throat singers in “Kaa,” and the unmistakable rattle of marimbas and xylophones in the percussion section of “Monkeys Kidnap Mowgli,” all show that Debney is really on top of his creative game here.

Perhaps most clever of all, however, are the moments where Debney takes thematic nuggets from the songs and works them into the fabric of his score. “Kaa” allows an ominous, oily statement of the melody from “Trust in Me” to insinuate itself into an atmosphere of dreadful tension, while “The Red Flower” brings the theme back with more intensity, and sees it transposed to a choir. The second half of “Mowgli and the Pit” has a gorgeous, highly emotional statement of “The Bare Necessities” for strings and choir that is as beautiful as it is unexpected. Best of all is the interpolation of “I Wanna Be Like You” into the two cues that feature King Louie; firstly, the portentous “Arrival at King Louie’s Temple,” where it appears on dark and threatening brasses as Mowgli slowly makes his way into the perilous domain of the Bandar-Log monkeys; and secondly in the fabulous “Cold Lair Chase,” when all hell breaks loose and Mowgli literally sprints for his life, pursued by Louie, and accompanied by a massive statement of the song melody for throbbing brass and a chanting choir.

The action music, of which there is plenty, builds on the style heard initially in “Jungle Run,” continuing through cues like “Shere Khan Attacks/Stampede,” “Baloo to the Rescue,” the first half of “Mowgli and the Pit,” the thunderous “Monkeys Kidnap Mowgli,” the aforementioned “Cold Lair Chase,” “The Red Flower,” and “To the River”. The subtle influence of Jerry Goldsmith can be heard here too, especially in the brass writing, while the rhythmic ideas have more than a hint of 1990s James Newton Howard about them, notably scores like Waterworld or The Postman. The chattering, trilling woodwind writing here is especially noteworthy, playing in rhythmic counterpoint to the stabbing brass phrases and highly percussive drum licks.

Shere Khan’s quietly threatening motif finally asserts itself during “Shere Khan’s War Theme,” another action sequence of great force and ferocity – listen to those trombones! – before culminating in “Shere Khan and the Fire,” a continuation of the action material heard in the previous cue, but with an enhanced emotional content that comes with the more heroic use of Mowgli’s theme in counterpoint to Shere Khan’s theme, signifying that their very personal battle is at the heart of the conflict. In the context of the film, Debney’s influence is felt as much as it is heard during these moments, and the way it builds up to its dramatic ending is superb, at times recalling the intensity James Horner brought to Aliens.

In the three conclusive cues Debney pulls out all the emotional stops; “Elephant Waterfall” provides the most majestic statements of both the Elephant theme and Mowgli’s theme, soaring to great heights of nobility and catharsis with a cascading horn countermelody, angelic choral accents, spine-tingling cymbal rings and clashing gongs, and a hopeful, searching quality in the strings. The interjection of a hugely energetic statement of the Bare Necessities melody in “Mowgli Wins the Race” slaps a huge smile on everyone’s face, before Debney again goes straight for the tear ducts in “The Jungle Book Closes,” a sweeping last performance of Mowgli’s theme to bring the score to a close.

Disney’s soundtrack album also includes four new versions of three original songs from the 1967 film; two versions of Terry Gilkyson’s “The Bare Necessities” performed by Dr. John & The Nite Trippers, and then by Bill Murray and Kermit Ruffins; a slithery, enticing version of “Trust in Me” performed in-character by Scarlett Johansson, who has a vocal timbre that would be perfect for a James Bond song; and finally a unique take on “I Wanna Be Like You” performed by Christopher Walken as King Louie, and which features new lyrics by Richard Sherman acknowledging the fact that, in this version of the film, Louie is not an orangutan, but is instead supposedly the last ‘gigantopithecus’, a real giant ape which went extinct more than 100,000 years ago.

It’s tempting to say that The Jungle Book is one of the most accomplished scores of John Debney’s career. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of his trio of all-time greats – they remain Cutthroat Island, The Passion of the Christ, and the video game Lair – but for me it’s certainly his best score since The Stoning of Soraya M. in 2008, and the finale almost rivals the magnitude of the last cue from Dragonfly in 2002, which for me is still the most tear-jerking and emotionally overwhelming music Debney has ever written.

Some of the press for this score calls John Debney ‘the ultimate film music character actor,’ which is clearly intended to be a compliment and a testament to his skill at jumping from genre to genre with ease, but I personally think it does him a disservice. Yes, he can turn his hand to various comedies and thrillers with the touch of a consummate professional, but some of the recent titles he has worked on – I’m thinking of things like The Call, or Walk of Shame, or The Cobbler, or Spongebob Squarepants – are beneath him. These are character pieces, where Debney is there just to play a supporting role, and which, frankly, anyone could do. But give him a canvas as broad and emotional as The Jungle Book, and he shines. He’s the matinee idol leading man, and listening to this score is just further proof that this is where he needs to be.

Buy the Jungle Book soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Bare Necessities (written by Terry Gilkyson, performed by Dr. John & The Nite Trippers) (3:34)
  • Trust in Me (written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, performed by Scarlett Johansson) (2:54)
  • Main Titles – Jungle Run (2:25)
  • Wolves – Law of the Jungle (2:15)
  • Water Truce (3:38)
  • The Rains Return (1:44)
  • Mowgli’s Leaving – Elephant Theme (3:27)
  • Shere Khan Attacks – Stampede (2:05)
  • Kaa – Baloo to the Rescue (5:20)
  • Honeycomb Climb (3:29)
  • The Man Village (2:57)
  • Mowgli and the Pit (3:24)
  • Monkeys Kidnap Mowgli (1:50)
  • Arrival at King Louie’s Temple (4:34)
  • Cold Lair Chase (4:00)
  • The Red Flower (3:15)
  • To the River (3:04)
  • Shere Khan’s War Theme (2:35)
  • Shere Khan and the Fire (4:50)
  • Elephant Waterfall (3:26)
  • Mowgli Wins the Race (0:40)
  • The Jungle Book Closes (2:13)
  • I Wanna Be Like You (written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, performed by Christopher Walken) (3:01)
  • The Bare Necessities (written by Terry Gilkyson, performed by Bill Murray & Kermit Ruffins) (3:00)

Running Time: 74 minutes 19 seconds

Walt Disney (2016)

Music composed and conducted by John Debney. Orchestrations by Kevin Kaska. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Charles Martin Inouye. Album produced by John Debney.

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  1. February 3, 2017 at 10:01 am

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