*Minor Spoilers Ahead*
The year 1997: For as far back as I can remember, 1997 was possibly one of the years this 25 year old was undoubtedly sitting in his childhood bedroom, drinking Capri Sun, with eyes glued to his 14" 2-in-1 VHS/Television combo, while 1967's The Jungle Book rolled tape across the screen. The last film for Walt Disney himself to produce, the animations all hand-drawn, the jungle's animals come to life, it truly was a magical classic for a young, 6 year old boy to discover and a now 25 year old adult to respectfully appreciate, a soft spot reserved snuggly in the heart.
So when I heard that Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Chef) would be adapting the classic tale Rudyard Kipling penned over 100 years ago, I felt good about what Favreau and Disney were doing, especially after viewing the movie's trailers.
So I bought a ticket, and settled into my seat, ready for whatever the director, studio, cast and crew would deliver me.
To be honest, it wasn't a whole heck of a lot.
To be fair, we now live in a cinematic time where CGI is a staple in almost any movie where action or large set-pieces are involved. What makes Jungle Book unique however, is that there is not much to hide behind with the movie's near primary use of a CGI environment and characters, the main protagonist Mowgli - played by Neel Sethi - excluded for obvious reasons. To call the movie a true live action adaptation would be lying, as the only elements of the 1967 original brought to life are Mowgli himself, a few rocks, a few trees, and a bit of water. Otherwise the live-action star, shares the screen with cartoons. Fine, nothing wrong with that, as I expected as much.
The film is touting itself as the next big thing in VFX, à la 2009's Avatar, where CGI and real life merge, though this is largely an overstatement. If you've seen Avatar, you are not getting much better with Jungle Book's visuals - while indeed impressive, ultimately, they are nothing new or that we haven't seen before. Worst yet, after the first 10 minutes or so, the over-saturation of visual effects becomes not an eyesore thankfully, but a forgettable shine which initially held it's place in the opening shots. While this is not a deal-breaking flaw mind you, it does essentially defeat the whole purpose of producing a film in such a way that is meant to wow the audience from the first minutes to the last. This doesn't happen unfortunately; so what we are left with instead, is a plain jane story told time and time again.
What elevates this however, above the dreaded less-than-mediocre mire, are the performances by a few of the cast members, the key characters specifically.
Where the rest of the cast performances could be summed up as simply "fine", the real standouts are Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Bill Murray as Baloo, Christopher Walken as King Louie, and Ben Kingsley as Bagheera (who, as it happens, is playing Ben Kingsley).
Out of these standouts, Idris Elba is the one who really shines as Shere Khan, his voice acting sessions seeming to be the ones that were most productive, where other performances in the movie simply sounded to be A-list actors looking for a few minutes in a booth for a paycheck.
Neel Sethi as the titular Mowgli acted how any average, young child actor in his first big budget movie would act: at times bored and at other times slightly confused as to what it is he is supposed to be doing. This leads to a detrimental loss of energy along with any previous engrossing moments that came before the hiccups in the actor's performance, despite a few solid scenes or pieces of dialogue the fresh face was able to conjure up. Overall, this Mowgli pales in comparison to the original cinematic adaption and performance of the character from the animated film decades before.
Another big problem for the movie is that it isn't sure at times what kind of a movie it wants to be. Between the frolicking in the water with Baloo to a ragged and bloodied Mowgli at times, following his scuffles with the animal kingdom and surrounding jungle, The Jungle Book's tone jumps from a scathingly, kid friendly Disney movie to a naturalistic, gritty adaption of a Disney property. The jumping back and forth, to be frank, is quite off-putting when you have a dark action scene followed soon after by a short-winded "Bare Necessities" sing-along that winds down before the kids in the audience could even begin to muster up the courage to sing along, something I'm sure the filmmakers intended to have occur.
In addition, the film asks us to suspend enough belief that an Indian boy, never hearing human language before, can speak English not only to his lonesome self but to almost all of the animals around him, who not only understand but can vocalize the English language in response, for full on conversations between Beast and Man. Yet, we're lead to not believe that the English-speaking jungle animals have no idea what fire is, instead giving it a faux pas moniker of "The Red Flower", when it is also revealed that the animal kingdom has more or less invented it's own religion and equivalent set of The 10 Commandments? There are other beastly beliefs injected throughout which also offer no such substance other than to deviate from the fantasy-rooted source material to give the animals a more realistic angle which they obviously don't require.
Couple this with some not-so-subtle and less than necessary life lessons about the dangers of playing with fire and the importance of rules, instances of such storybook propaganda being all too obvious and therefore, slightly off-putting, the movie's direction and theme further convolutes itself amongst the haphazard real-world sensibilities where such rules are broken time and time again during the procession of the movie's events.
Instead of a purely fantastical world the likes of the 1967 Wolfgang Reitherman-directed children's feature, we're left instead with an effectively enjoyable spectacle (though a tired one at that after all is said and done) which because of it's indecision of whether to adapt faithfully to the '67 animation (which is obviously the attempt made) or expand into a new, gritty age of said adaptions, what takes root is an uninspired story that can't quite find it's heart, unfortunately leading to a forgettable experience that sadly won't be talked about by audiences a few years down the road.
The Jungle Book decides to give us the "bare necessities" instead of the game-changing adaptation it promised.
The Jungle Book (2016): B -
- Josh Price