The Jungle Book
Nostalgia has been a powerful tool in pop culture for some time, but the way the urge to look back at the past expresses itself seems to morph over time. Disney has shown itself as a company more than willing to embrace nostalgia (look no further than the purchase of Marvel Comics and Star Wars: The Force Awakens for all necessary proof), and lately the most direct example of this is their penchant for resurrecting their old animated properties as big budget live action films. Tim Burton’s mostly interminable Alice in Wonderland kicked off the trend in 2010, and its monolithic worldwide box office numbers became the face that launched a thousand spec scripts. Maleficent eventually followed, and Cinderella after that, all taking advantage of massive advancements in special effects and computer technology to turn these fantastical animated worlds flesh. And with Beauty and the Beast due next year, the trend has shown no signs of slowing. This week marks the release of the newest entrant into the genre, a new take on the 1967 classic, The Jungle Book.
As is almost certainly common knowledge, this update of The Jungle Book from director Jon Favreau once again follows Mowgli (Neel Sethi, the only live action actor in the film), the boy raised by the wolves Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) under the watchful eye of the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) who first brought him to the jungle. It’s a relaxing, happy life until the fierce tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) discovers the boy and demands he leave the jungle, for boys eventually become men and men eventually destroy everything in their paths. With his pack in danger, Mowgli leaves his home to be reunited with mankind, though his journey is anything but peaceful. His travels put him in the path of the alluring snake Kaa (Scarlett Johannson), ape monarch King Louie (Christopher Walken) and, of course, the lovable oaf of a bear, Baloo (BIll Murray). Mowgli must decide whether to leave the jungle or stand up to Shere Khan, and will have to rely on the help of his friends to make it through.
Favreau’s approach to the material seems to indicate that he wants to separate his film from the beloved animated classic, taking the story into a much more realistic direction. It’s strange to use the word ‘realistic’ when talking about a film filled to the brim with talking animals, but Favreau has stripped away the anthropomorphism that defined the original Disney interpretation of these characters. They talk, yes, but they move and act like the animals they are, making the film feel more grounded and weighty. The immersive sound design fills the theater with buzzes and chirps and all manner of jungle critters, enveloping the audience and pulling them into the setting with immediacy. The visuals are astounding; lush and beautiful, the depth of frame further increasing that sense of presence within the story and the setting. What is perhaps most impressive is the animation of the animals. We’ve certainly seen convincingly animated bipedal characters come to life in the new Planet of the Apes films, but what’s more impressive is how natural the wolves and the big cats and mice and snakes look even while they’re speaking English. There is no uncanny valley to worry about breaking the film’s spell.
What does threaten to break The Jungle Book’s spell is the sense that Favreau doesn’t entirely have a grasp on the film’s tone. The shift to a more realistic depiction of the animals often turns the jungle into a legitimately scary place. Shere Khan especially has become all intimidation, ruling over the jungle with an iron fist and displaying none of the aristocratic charm of the original. King Louie has morphed into a two story tall monster who skulks in the shadows (as much as a giant ape can “skulk,” at least) and speaks like Don Corleone. Kaa plays up the seduction of her trance (the choice to use a female voice here makes the scene feel almost sexual). Even the lovable oaf Baloo shows the pure fury of a bear when Mowgli is threatened. This is all well and good, and Bill Murray’s excellent performance (he’s the real highlight here) manages to synthesize the genial honey obsessed lout with the fierce fighter he can be. But what really derails things is the decision to include a few of the songs, but not all of them, from the original animated feature. “Bare Necessities” is one thing, in that the idea he would burst into song mostly fits with how Murray plays Baloo. But the inclusion of “I Want to Be Like You,” sung in the most sinister of fashions by this behemoth of an ape in his ruined palace, completely and nearly irreversibly breaks the spell the film had so expertly crafted in the scenes leading up to it. It is such a bizarre and puzzling inclusion, so counter to everything that came before it, that it can’t help but derail the film more than a little bit. Favreau seems to want to have his cake and eat it too, clearly establishing that this version of The Jungle Book would not be a musical before awkwardly shoving in a few songs during the second half. The sense of unease proceeds to linger through the finale, and the film never manages to regain the momentum it built up in its first hour.
Additionally and unfortunately problematic is the performance of Neel Sethi. It’s unfortunate to have to critique the acting of a boy, especially in this case where the child was forced to act against people in motion capture suits or nothing at all, which isn’t easy for a seasoned actor let alone a child, but his weaknesses are glaring. Luckily, he gives the only weak performance, but unluckily, he’s the main character of the film. It doesn’t completely wreck the film or anything dire like that, but it’s another little niggle that keeps the film from fully living up to its potential. Its technical bona fides are undeniable, and the performances of its voice cast are immaculate. It’s a shame Favreau couldn’t quite pull it all together and make it coalesce. There are some really special trees in The Jungle Book, but the forest is a bit lacking.