Film Review: 'The Jungle Book'
Like any timeless novel, chances are it'll see plenty of different film adaptations over the years, and Rudyard Kipling's 1894 classic The Jungle Book is no different. It's seen more than its fair share of movie versions (seven, to be exact, with a Warner Bros. version on the way), the most famous of those being Disney's 1962 animated spin that continued a streak of groundbreaking animated features. That version also included eight famous and undeniably catchy songs by the immemorial Richard Sherman - ones that felt like they belonged with Kipling's story. It was an innovative addition that breathed new life into Mowgli's timeless journey to self-discovery in the jungle.
So it's natural that when Disney is in a period of live-action remakes that The Jungle Book would be one of them. This time, it's Iron Man director John Favreau who uses the cutting edge of visual effects animation and a loaded cast including Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, and even Scarlett Johansson to give Kipling's classic tale the visual splendor it always demanded. Yet it's so easy to get swept up in the film's massive strong points that one might not realize there's little new material to go along with the nostalgia trip.
All the props in the world to newcomer Neel Sethi (this being his first-ever screen credit), who's all on his own while playing the red-trunked Mowgli. That is, he's the sole live-action actor among digitized animals and environments, and all his work is done in a green room. It takes a truly special talent to give such a convincing performance as he has, and to do it at the age of twelve promises a huge career. He is the reason that caretaker panther Bagheera (Kingsley) and, of course, Baloo the bear (Murray, the perfect actor to cast here), are as convincingly real and enjoyable as they are. They're great companions for Mowgli, as he often weighing returning to the world of man against the comfort of the jungle and his lifelong friends.
Mowgli's wolf-pack mentality is passed onto him by mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o) and father Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) who are as fierce as they are noble. 'Fierce' is a great term for lead bad guy, the tiger Shere Khan (Elba), whose scarred face and buff figure makes him film's most menacing big cat since Life of Pi's Richard Parker. It's easy to see why he resents man - and therefore, Mowgli - for their capability to produce the destructive force of fire. And lastly, with Christopher Walken as the hulking orangutan King Louie (a choice that works much better than it sounds), the perfect acting outlet is formed to give The Jungle Book a cool new skin.
In this case, the beauty is only skin deep. There's not much sustenance in this massive visual effects buffet, and more high-adrenaline sequences merely feel tacked-on. A loud and rumbling chase where King Louie tries to snag Mowgli - and tears up an ancient temple in the process - doesn't mix among the film's lighthearted and more whimsical aspects. There's no doubting it's a spectacle, but one that hardly adds to the story. It's a sin The Jungle Book commits often; the film is tailored to fit an audience accustomed to loud, action-packed blockbusters at the expense of good storytelling.
Essentially, what this blockbuster version of The Jungle Book fails to do is distinguish itself from prior versions of the story, unlike how Disney's original version uses Sherman's tunes to enhance the tale's core themes of friendship, inspiration, and self-discovery. We do see a brief, but bright, flash of that creativity during Scarlett Johansson's turn as the hypnotizing serpent Kaa, whose one and only appearance is a compelling segway into Mowgli's backstory. We are literally under the hypnotic spell that Kaa casts with her luminescent eyes and her sultry voice - a vast improvement over Disney's first animated crack. It's far and away the film's highest point, and it's regretful to know that this is the only scene Kaa appears in.
Had that same innovative and inventive spirit in that scene impassioned the rest of the film, we'd have a fully worthy successor to Disney's original version - one that's more immersive than what any pair of 3D glasses can provide. Luckily, there's a much better chance to add to the tale with The Jungle Book 2, with Favreau already signed on to direct and produce. Let's just hope it doesn't try to be another gritty reboot.
Rated PG. 105 minutes.
Written by Justin Marks (screenplay) and Rudyard Kipling (novel).
Directed by Jon Favreau.
Starring Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, and Idris Elba.