The Jungle Book, 2016.
Directed by Jon Favreau.
Starring Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johnasson, Giancarlo Esposito and Christopher Walken.
Mowgli, a young boy raised in the jungle by a panther and a pack of wolves, is forced to travel to a man village when Shere Khan, a fearsome tiger arrives, intent on killing him.
We have Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to thank/blame for the current onslaught of live action adaptations of Disney’s animated classics – ever since that CGI suck-fest inexplicably made a billion dollars at the box office we’ve seen Cinderella, Maleficent, Pan (not made by Disney, but surely green-lighted in attempt to cash in on the trend) and two separate versions of Snow White, with plenty more on the way. Some people, myself included, are of the opinion that mining such an incredible back catalogue isn’t only sacrilege, it’s a sad reflection of the House of Mouse’s lack of originality. That being said, this is probably the most successful adaptation they’ve done so far.
(Note, for the purposes of this review, whenever I refer to ‘the original’ I am referring to the 1967 animated version of the film rather than the book – this is just for sake of ease, as the animated film is the version of this story that most people are probably familiar with).
What sets The Jungle Book apart from the other Disney live action adaptations so far is its the first adaptation of a film with mostly animal characters, which meant calling on the wonders of CGI (as well as a bunch of celebrity voices) to bring them to life. Sadly however, most of the voice cast don’t really excel in their roles – Ben Kingsley practically sleep-walks through the film as Bagheera, Bill Murray doesn’t perform Baloo with much more enthusiasm than he did with Garfield, and Scarlett Johansson is just plain miscast as Kaa (I’m not saying that making the role a female was mistake, just that her hissing her s’s wasn’t enough for me). Idris Elba is pretty good as Shere Khan, although I can’t help thinking Benedict Cumberbatch (another ‘Khan’ – get it?) will do a better job in next year’s equally unnecessary Jungle Book: Origins.
For me, the stand-out voice (and character) was Christopher Walken’s King Louie – an enormous ape, played by Walken as a shadowy mob boss-type character, who offers Mowgli a home in exchange for the secret of man’s “red flower” (when Mowgli refuses, his escape from his temple is the film’s best action sequence). While the film is technically a visual triumph, I had an issue with animal characters – animals simply don’t have the same range of facial expressions that humans do, so no matter how photo-real they look, there’s always a disconnect when you hear a human voice coming out of their mouths. It made me question whether the lack of enthusiasm in the actors’ performances was by necessity, because the animators were limited in what they could make the animals do with their faces (another reason why Louie was the most effective CGI character is monkey faces are the most similar to humans’, so his performance was much more nuanced).
The best thing about this film is the changes the writers made to the original’s story – Mowgli is a much independent, resourceful character in this version (he chooses to leave jungle of his own accord to keep his family safe, and he fashions ropes and tools to gather food and fend for himself, which his wolf brethren refer to as ‘man tricks’). There is also a stronger protagonist/antagonist relationship between Mowgli and Shere Khan (Khan killed Mowgli’s father, who injured Khan whilst defending his infant son), which makes the final show-down much more dramatic and compelling. In fact, don’t go into this film expecting a comedy – it’s actually much more of a drama, with some dark/scary moments that might be a bit much for younger viewers. Ironically, the film is at its weakest when it’s trying to stick too closely to the lively, colourful original – since this version isn’t an out-and-out musical, the inclusion of ‘Bare Necessities’ and ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ feel very out of place tonally (it doesn’t help that Bill Murray is not a good singer – his crooning is not unlike that of a drunk uncle at karaoke night).
Newcomer Neel Sethi is decent as Mowgli, but his performance is occasionally wooden – however, as the Star Wars prequels proved, even pros can have a hard time acting well in front of constant green screen! And his friendship with Baloo (which was the heart of the original film) is very under-developed – Mowgli never seems to mind that Baloo conned him into helping him gather honey for his non-existent hibernation (during which he risked his life and got stung multiple times), and there’s no heartfelt reunion after the final battle, which is an otherwise thrilling set-piece (despite its similarity to the ending of The Lion King).
All in all this is a slick adaptation which may not make kids laugh or sing, but it will probably keep them entertained. However, the current generation doesn’t have to grow up with glossy, re-packaged hand-me-downs of the classics that we knew and loved – I urge you to introduce your children to the original, because the characters are fun, the songs are timeless, and hand-drawn animation has something that CGI never will – charm!
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★