While Disney making live-action versions of their old animated classics is by no means a new thing (just look at 1996’s 101 Dalmatians), it’s obvious at this point that they have begun to put a more concerted effort in practically recreating their cartoons in live-action form. Maleficent was a dud, but they bounced back with a vengeance with Cinderella. And now, four months before their next remake, Pete’s Dragon, we have The Jungle Book, which is directed by Jon Favreau and written by Justin Marks.
Like the 1967 classic, The Jungle Book follows the adventures of man cub, Mowgli (Neel Sethi), who has lived amongst the wolf pack for most of his life. However, when Shere Khan (Idris Elba) threatens their livelihood, Mowgli volunteers to leave, which sets him off on an adventure that brings some colorful characters in his way.
I admit I have a bit of a soft spot for the original animated film, not just because it’s a great film that works despite its meandering, relaxed nature, but it also happened to be the final film to be personally overlooked by Walt Disney himself, a person that I thoroughly admire. There’s a certain touch he brings to all his films that has never really been found in any of Disney’s films since he died, even in their most stellar work, of which there’s many. So, while I can’t say I was dreading The Jungle Book (after all, I absolutely enjoyed their live-action Cinderella from last year), but I was mostly indifferent towards the film. And a part of that is also because of my indifference toward the source material, the book by Rudyard Kipling, which can be crazy fun if you’re not easily taken out by the wildly racist worldview that Kipling held.
Onto the film itself, first thing I might as well mention is the way it was made. For anyone not already aware, this entire film was shot at a soundstage in downtown L.A. There were no on-location shooting, no large sets, no animals, just little Neel Sethi and maybe some dirt on the floor. If we’re talking from a purely technical perspective, The Jungle Book is movie magic at its finest. The digital wizardry at work here is nothing short of marvelous and jaw-droppingly gorgeous. It is such a well-crafted film that it almost becomes distracting, as you look past the characters to see if you can find any imperfection, or anything at all that could break the immersion, only to find absolutely nothing. It sounds hyperbolic, I’m aware, but I cannot stress the mastery from Favreau, from the VFX team, cinematographer Bill Pope, as well as the animation and sound teams. This is perfection from top to bottom, a technical masterwork that pushes the boundaries of visual effects, where every two minutes you find yourself asking “how the hell is this possible?”
So, the film definitely has that going for it.
Like Cinderella, The Jungle Book allows the extra time it’s given to allow for some added nuance and depth in areas that the animation may not have been able to provide. The Jungle Book is certainly ambitious in how it wants to retell this story. It’s not quite the jazzy, laid-back romp of the animation. This time around, the narrative is a bit more propulsive, it’s given some edge and it explores some interesting ideas. The story itself is really where I begin to take issue. Not so much that it becomes bad, far from it, but I think there’s a bit of overreaching going on. For one, there is an attempt to add some backstory for Shere Khan, and frankly, I thought it was trite. There’s a revenge element in play that I felt didn’t add as much depth as the filmmakers may have thought, and it only served to make the villain even more of a walking cliché, which isn’t bad in and of itself, but it makes you question whether or not this take was really the best that they could’ve came up with. The film also thematically deals in multiple things, but they don’t quite come together in a way that feels complete or coherent. It’s a bit of a shame since the ending of this film, I actually prefer over the original, and I felt it would’ve caused a more stronger reaction in me had the film was more clear in building its way to it aside from some generic ramblings about “home” and “family.” There are also some very sloppy moments like the scene where Mowgli meets the snake, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson). Like in the original, Kaa hypnotizes Mowgli so she could have him in her grasp, but something different they do here is add a long and out-of-place exposition dump to explain Mowgli’s backstory and how it relates to Shere Khan. It’s lazy and the film already heavily implied the history.
There’s also little things that bug me like one thing in particular that I tend to find in a lot of movies involving talking animals and that’s how some animals have the ability to talk while others do not. Like, the elephants don’t talk in this…huh? This is most definitely a nitpick, but considering how lush and rich the world Favreau has built here, I find it odd that he doesn’t make some of its rules clear. Also, like any remake, there are plenty of sequences in The Jungle Book that are deliberate homages to the original film, especially the songs from the original film. These moments were the worst parts of the film for me. Not only do the homages to the animated film fall completely flat, but they were downright cringe-worthy. As soon as King Louie (Christopher Walken) begins singing a brief rendition of “I Wanna Be Like You,” I was sinking into my seat waiting for it to be over. It wasn’t charming, as a “musical number” it was unremarkable in every way and it doesn’t serve anything. Again, it also confuses because the movie isn’t sure whether or not it’s a musical and that is a very, very important part of setting up a world and understanding how it works. Plus, no matter how great the music (from the excellent John Debney) or even the “singing” from it’s otherwise fantastic voice cast, this film simply cannot top the terrific work of the Sherman Brothers in the original film, no way, no how. Though I will say the voice cast really is fantastic, and that’s taking in the fact that they’re competing with legends like Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, George Sanders, Sterling Holloway, Louis Prima, J. Pat O’Malley and Bruce Reitherman. The cast absolutely delivers, even when they’re given material that I don’t think is particularly great. Well, most of the cast delivers, at least. I wasn’t very fond of Neel Sethi, who I feel played his role with maybe a dash too much unwarranted whimsy and the occasional flat delivery. However, it’s hard to criticize since he is passable enough and this is considering the fact that he is forced to act like he’s in a jungle alongside wild animals when he’s really in a green screen studio staring at a puppet or a tennis ball. It’s a tough task even for veteran actors, and the fact that he doesn’t come across as unwatchable is kind of praiseworthy in its own weird way.
Though I have some big issues with the way the story in The Jungle Book was handled, it’s a film where the technical achievements far overshadows the flaws in its ambitious narrative. Except for the awkward inclusions of the classic songs, the film works moment by moment and you don’t really notice the lack of a cohesive throughline. Not only does Jon Favreau bring some of the thrills that he displayed with his Iron Man films, but he brings back the fun character banter that defined his early comedies like Swingers and Made. The Jungle Book will probably go down as the big “experience movie” of 2016, a film that is an absolute must-see in 3D and on the biggest screen possible, preferably in IMAX. And while it doesn’t trump the original film for me, it is still a great family film and easily one of the better theater experiences I’ve had so far this year. If I was Andy Serkis, I’d be getting really nervous right now. His Warner Brothers backed adaptation of the Kipling novel called Jungle Book (because that’s not going to confuse anyone) is given an October release in 2018 and Disney has also recently announced a sequel with Jon Favreau attached already in the works. Who knows? Maybe we’ll finally get that TaleSpin movie we’ve always wanted. 80/100