by Jacob Mouradian
In Richard Williams’ textbook The Animator’s Survival Kit, the acclaimed artist raves about the 1967 version of The Jungle Book as being some of the best animated work he’d ever seen. Williams recalls, “I realised I didn’t even know how it was done–let alone ever be able to do it myself.” The film is considered by many to be a high point in character animation, a beautiful technical achievement above and beyond anything else of the period. One could argue that its narrative is a bit rushed and as a result rather bare, but that can be overlooked by the film’s terrific visuals.
It’s strange how such analytical parallels can exist across nearly 50 years of cinema and be aptly applied to Jon Favreau’s new live-action adaptation of the same property, complete with splendid imagery but an overall film that leaves one wanting.
Abandoned as a baby in the Indian jungle, the “man-cub” Mowgli (portrayed by Neel Sethi) is found by the panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), who leaves him in the care of a local wolf pack. The pack’s leaders Raksha and Akela (Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito, respectively) wholeheartedly welcome him in, loving him as if he was one of their own furry, four-legged cubs. They teach him how to survive as a fellow wolf but Mowgli’s man-like “tricks” clash with both their nature and jungle-wide law, which causes Mowgli’s identity crisis to balloon even more. And on top of all that, in the midst of a drought-induced truce, he’s having his life threatened by the man-hating Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba).
Not wanting to endanger the livelihood of his pack, Mowgli exiles himself elsewhere into the jungle. Bagheera accompanies him on his journey but with the alternate plan of returning him to the “man-village” instead, believing that he will be both safer from Shere Khan and more easily accepted amongst his own people than he would in the wild. But as a result of buffalo stampedes and avalanches the two are separated, throwing Mowgli into the coils of Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the laidback persuasions of the honey-savvy Baloo (Bill Murray), and the towering stature of the ill-intentioned King Louie (Christopher Walken). Mowgli struggles to defend his friends through each succeessive tribulation, but all while fighting the doubt that his jungle home may not be where he belongs.
Favreau has become a curator of action with a knack for making his works thrilling for all age groups. The Jungle Book follows suit in providing large fight sequences, chase scenes, and perilous side quests aplenty. While it may not achieve the narrative sleekness that made his first Iron Man a staple in the superhero franchise, Favreau’s foray into Kipling’s work has enough visual excitement to keep one’s attention at bay. Even Justin Marks’ screenplay turns out some high points, such as giving Mowgli more introspection into his character than we’ve seen before. Even the most skeptical fans of the animated 1967 version will maintain interest, if only just to see how well its plot alterations turn out.
The visual effects work in the film is astounding, recalling connections to the standards that the original animated film set during its time, though not without its limitations. In the current CGI-laden climate, claiming you “know” or “can tell” that everything is or isn’t CGI isn’t the argument that should be debated; instead, it’s how well all of these elements–both CGI and “real” ones–coexist on-screen. The animals, while obviously rendered in a computer, interact with Sethi and the set pieces so well that we marvel at the mere animation of it all rather than scrutinize over its believability. Somehow every animal’s face retains its species’ look and untamed nature while also allowing a sliver of cartoonish charm through to communicate emotion–Baloo’s dopeyness, Bagheera’s fretfulness, Raksha’s fear, and King Louie’s anger, just to name a few. Not so impressive are their gaits and rendered strands of fur than are the feelings they convey through their mere presence in the frame, a truly successful blend of nature and technology. Granted, the film is still awkward when it tries to combine too many of these elements into a large setting at once, especially when it throws Sethi into an action set piece with a digitally-manufactured background and he seems to be floating above the rest of the image. Luckily, for the most part, the film’s visual spectacles outweigh its flaws.
And yet for all of its grandeur, the story is just a four-letter word that begins with an F: fine.
In line with Disney’s current resurgence of large-scale, live-action remakes of its beloved animated classics, the film tries to establish itself with a more serious tone but jarringly shifts to lighthearted goofiness at the most inopportune times. The most egregious example is the scene in the ruins with King Louie, who Walken voices with a mobster-like slime. Louie is trying to persuade the reluctant Mowgli to teach him about the “red flower” (or “fire”, as we humans would call it), and he starts versing the lyrics of the classic “I Wan’na Be Like You” as the music takes an upswing into a bubbly rendition of the song. This sort of tonal confusion occurs quite frequently throughout the film, and it can shake one out of the film more violently than any of the CGI flaws would. Sometimes it works–such is the case with the climax, in that it feels both smaller-scale and believable in regards to the characters involved–but most of the time it’s a clashing mix. It’s as if Favreau and Disney don’t know how confident they are in their new imagining of the property, and how much callback to the original is needed in order to please any picky fans.
What’s more, a film so biologically diverse seems to lack a certain liveliness. Everything unfolds in a decent and competent manner but it also feels a bit stiff and unenthusiastic in doing so. It feels as if it’s just going through some sort of unwritten motions and hitting all of the notes it needs to in order to be a big Disney adaptation.
In essence, Favreau’s The Jungle Book is an action-adventure expedition that certainly delivers on the sights and thrills that it promises. However, if you’re not joining the trek for either nostalgic purposes or those of pure curiosity, you may wonder why you tagged along in the first place.