Already being hailed as a new family classic and one of the finest films of 2016, Disney's spectacular reboot of The Jungle Book does what many thought impossible: build on the legacy of Rudyard Kipling's original stories and also that of the classic 1967 animation, taking the story in bold, exciting new directions. A fusion of cutting-edge CGI and live-action (the jungle landscape, astonishingly, is rendered entirely by visual effects), the movie is directed by Iron Man's Jon Favreau who brings his deft touch with spectacle and character to bear on the story of man-cub Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi). A young boy raised in the jungle by wolves, Mowgli then has to trek to the man village for protection after his life is threatened by ferocious tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba); luckily he has staunch allies in the form of noble panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and amiable bear Baloo (Bill Murray). Along the way, Mowgli also encounters sinister, fire-seeking gigantopithecus King Louie (Christopher Walken) and hypnotic snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson).
With a pitch-perfect voice cast and largely seamless effects that draw the audience into the lush jungle environment, The Jungle Book successfully honours both the tooth and claw legacy of Kipling's darker source material and also the more family-friendly exterior of Disney's 1967 movie (arguably the touchstone for many viewers). And one of the ways in which Favreau succeeds at pulling off this tightrope act is through the music, composed by Elf, Zathura and Iron Man 2 compatriot John Debney. The animated movie has one of the most famously enduring musical legacies of any Disney project, the songs by Richard and Robert Sherman and Terry Gilkyson drawing on the scat jazz rhythms so prevalent in popular culture at the time of its release. This presented a challenge for Debney who by (bear) necessity had to incorporate timeless numbers like "I Wanna Be Like You" into his music whilst also reinforcing the more visceral themes of Kipling's writing through his own, richly melodic underscore.
The score is actually top and tailed by enjoyable reworkings of these Jungle Book classics. "The Bear Necessities" is treated to two versions, one by Dr John and the Nite Trippers, the other by Murray and Kermit Ruffins; Walken delivers his own unmistakeably eccentric take on "I Wanna Be Like You" (with reworked lyrics by Richard Sherman); and Johansson's dulcet tones are put to excellent use on the sibilant "Trust in Me". Then there's Debney's score itself.
In many ways he's the perfect man for the job: throughout his career Debney has assimilated the tones of other composers, whether it's Eric Wolfgang Korngold in the sensational Cutthroat Island, Jerry Goldsmith in video game soundtrack Lair or Mikos Rosza in the Oscar-nominated The Passion of the Christ. True to form he skilfully traverses the divide from the very opening track, "Main Titles - Jungle Run", as he moves from the reworked Disney logo music to the snaky, mysterious opening bars of George Bruns' 1967 score to his own, action-packed voice. Bamboo flutes, percussion and racing strings pick up and catapult us into the danger of the jungle environment as the musical journey begins.
Debney brilliantly utilises various instrumental textures to keep the soundscape varied, the Indonesian gamelan ensemble in "Water Truce" and "The Rains Return" carrying a mysterious, ethereal tone that's ideal for capturing the mystery of the jungle. The lovely, undulating "Wolves - Law of the Jungle" introduces Debney's new theme for Mowgli, soft woodwinds and strings reinforcing the familial relationship between him and wolf mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o) before the choir and percussion take it to ever-greater heights. This will become the composer's central idea as it gains in stature and purpose throughout the score, mirroring Mowgli's ascent to tiger-fighting hero.
The theme is treated to several spine-tingling renditions, notably in the beautiful "Water Truce"; the heartbreaking "Mowgli's Leaving", which then gives way to the awe-inspiring "Elephant Theme", another of the score's key building blocks; and the heroic "Mowgli and the Pit" where our character's destiny begins to take shape. It also gets more wistful treatments towards the end of "Kaa - Baloo to the Rescue" (one of the best-scored moments in the movie itself) and the thoughtful "The Man Village", as Mowgli must grapple with whether to return to his own kind or remain with the animals and face Shere Khan.
There's also an insidious growling theme for Khan himself that first stalks into the music in "Water Truce" on creepy strings, before exploding in terror in the action packed, percussion/flute-driven "Shere Khan Attacks/The Stampede", possibly the most Goldsmithian piece in the entire score. (There's also a touch of Elliot Goldenthal in the complex horn trills.) Khan's theme also chillingly emerges in the middle of "Kaa -Baloo to the Rescue" as Johansson's seductive snake reveals the tragic circumstances that led Mowgli to become an orphan, although Khan's material only properly takes shape towards the end of the score.
As Mowgli and the vicious tiger prepare to do battle, "Shere Khan's War Theme" and "Shere Khan and the Fire" present some of the most formidably intense action music of Debney's career, the composer conjuring a sense of visceral danger that's entirely appropriate for the movie's themes of man vs. nature. The sense of danger conjured by the latter with its slashing strings and woodwinds calls to mind Debney's intense horror writing on I Know What You Did Last Summer.
Following the aforementioned "Kaa" track, one drawing on Bruns' eerie, serpentine material for the snake (albeit filtered through a much darker tone tone here), some quintessential mickey-mousing takes over in the lighthearted "Honeycomb Climb", Debney breaking out the innocent woodwind ensemble in the manner of his comedy scores like Liar Liar in order to represent the irrepressible Baloo. In addition to Murray's take on "The Bear Necessities" mentioned earlier, the classic piece also makes a subtly purposeful appearance at the end of "Mowgli and the Pit" as the lazy sloth bear gains a newfound respect for our man cub hero. Even better is the incorporation of "I Wanna Be Like You" as an action theme during the enormously exciting and dramatic duo of "Cold Lair Chase" and "The Red Flower" with their brass collisions and choral outbursts; Debney's careful placement of these various musical ideas needs to be applauded for the way it intelligently honours the Jungle Book legacy.
In fact, the choral work must be singled out as some of the best heard in a score for quite some time. The steadily mounting tension of "Arrival at King Louie's Temple", again featuring the intoxicating rhythms of the Gamelan, is notable for its growling vocals, as is "The River" that uses voices to build a sense of danger prior to Mowgli's battle with Shere Khan. Immediately following is the battle between light and dark in "Shere Khan's War Theme" and "Shere Khan and the Fire", the choir representing Mowgli's essential goodness and battling against the rampaging orchestral chaos of Khan's material.
Best of all is the culmination of the Elephant Theme in "Elephant Waterfall": as Bagheera explains these creatures form the backbone of all life in the jungle, and Debney's soaringly powerful music more than does them justice, bringing everything to a memorable close with a musical celebration of the wonders of nature. The score then ends on the best possible note with an exhilarating orchestral rendition of "The Bear Necessities" in "Mowgli Wins the Race", capped off with an effortlessly charming final statement of Mowgli's theme in "The Jungle Book Closes", reminding us of the man-cub's triumph whilst setting us up for the planned sequel to come.
Although John Debney is one of Hollywood's most prolific composers, very often his skill at providing fascimiles of other scores means it's hard to distinguish his own voice. In-keeping with many of Debney's other works there's occasionally more than a hint of temp-track bleed-through in the Jungle Book score, whether it's James Horner's Aliens, Jerry Goldsmith's The Mummy or James Newton Howard's The Hunger Games (the latter especially in the "Elephant Waterfall" track). Nevertheless, this is a relatively minor quibble when placed next to the achievement of the score as a whole. Debney brilliantly meshes a genuine love of the 1967 Disney score with his own robustly exciting material to craft a work that is both nostalgic and forward-thinking, a score of great affection, adventurous spirit and feeling that serves its respective movie brilliantly. It may not always sound especially original but The Jungle Book score has a big, beating heart, and that, ultimately, is what counts more than anything. This album release is available at www.amazon.com and www.amazon.co.uk.