** (2 stars)
d – Jon Favreau
w – Justin Marks (Based on the Book by Rudyard Kipling)
ph – Bill Pope
pd – Christopher Glass, Abhijeet Mazumder
m – John Debney
ed – Mark Livolsi
cos – Laura Jean Shannon
p – Brigham Taylor, Jon Favreau
Cast: Neel Sethi, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken, Bill Murray, Giancarlo Esposito, Garry Shandling
Someone close to me recently was relaying how devastated he felt at the beginning of Tarzan (1999) when Kala the Gorilla’s baby was eaten to death by the leopard Sabor. He said “You feel so bad that this woman lost her child”, at which point I corrected him and said “You mean gorilla, right?” The art of animated anthropomorphization is, when done well, utterly astounding and although my friend may have just made a mental slip, it is, I think, a rather telling one.
Special effects take the forefront in Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli stories that also serves as a remake of the 1966 Disney animated film. As a visual experience, The Jungle Book is nothing short of staggering, even though it is created almost entirely in digital space, without a single real animal, landscape or tree. As a demonstration of effects ingenuity, it is undeniably a work of art. Talking animals are probably the best they’ve ever looked in a live-action feature and the film overtakes even Life of Pi (2012) with regard to realistic nature life.
This is why it is a shame that the film feels so ultimately thin as everything else. Mr Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks follow the 1966 version beat-for-beat. As always, there’s the boy Mowgli (Neel Sethi, in an extremely stiff performance), raised by wolves in the wilds of India, and helped by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to become a capable adult. A drought brings a truce between the predators and prey of the jungle, as well as the returning threat of the Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who warns that all humans are dangerous.
In regards to the plot of The Jungle Book, Shere Khan is never a motivated villain; his excuses for why he is so hard-pressed in not only getting Mowgli out of the jungle but also murdering him are unsatisfactory. Near the beginning of the film, Shere Khan does indeed murder Mowgli’s wolf father in what inevitably feels like a non-event because Mr Favreau tries too hard to thread the needle between what is convincingly violent and also not too violent for the target audience. Therefore what he ultimately delivers is merely a throwaway shot for what is supposed to be the emotional bedrock of the entire film. Both parental figures (played by Lupita Nyong'o and Giancarlo Esposito) barely reckon as characters and so the film has absolutely no emotional undercurrent as a result.
Mr Favreau often shoots the film’s languid moments in beautiful wide shots that put the audience perfectly into the time and space desired. These wide shots are brimming with visual detail: bees buzzing in the corner, sprites of light in the background, all of which combine to create a powerful piece of illusionary dissimulation, despite the non-incontrovertibility involved with shooting everything in a green-screen studio.
Like the 1966 version, the most fun character is Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) even though he really has nothing to provide in terms of story. The most alien sequence in the film is Mr Favreau's restoration of King Louie (Christopher Walken) who is gentrified here as some sort of Godfather figure and for no reason starts singing “I Wan'na Be Like You”, despite the film not really establishing itself as a musical before this. It stops the film dead in its tracks; Baloo and Mowgli barely hum their version of “The Bare Necessities”.
As I have stated with movies like Maleficent (2014) and Cinderella (2015) there is an enormous amount of lopsidedness involved with converting beat-for-beat these animated classics into live-action features. Live–action and animation are two separate mediums and the mind consumes them differently. It takes Mowgli almost the entire film to reach the point of where he’s travelling but merely a quick jog to get back home? Why does Baloo, as any normal bear would, not simply bite Mowgli’s face off at first glance? Because he gave him a honeycomb? Huh?
Of course, the reason everything remains the same is due to commerce. And you don’t need me to convince you of the fact that sequels and prequels and remakes and reboots are doing nothing but killing the film industry hard and fast. At least The Jungle Book has real work on display.
But this kind of naturalizing is counterintuitive. The filmmakers want to awe their audience with the technology yet the point of said technology to help you forget it; to completely immerse you in the world of the filmmaker’s imagination. And as visually enrapturing as The Jungle Book truly is, I can’t quite recommend it as anything beyond that.