[Review] - The Jungle Book
In which I am pleasantly surprised by the application of some bare necessities.
The first cinematic memory I have is of the Jungle Book. I also have no way of knowing if this memory is real or not. It is conceivable that my parents took me to see it during one of the theatrical releases, and I know for certain that I had a copy on VHS back when that was a New and Big Thing. Still, the memory is a foggy port nestled in an unlit cove, and so I assumed that I remember correctly, and that a very young and impressionable me was taken to see a bunch of animation cells that would eventually be re-purposed in Robin Hood. And because, frankly, the alternative is far more distressing: if I didn’t see Jungle Book in theatres, why did my brain decided to use it to fill in the gap? Of all the movies it could have chosen, why that one? Despite my potentially having been incepted at some point in the past, I have never held a nostalgic attachment to The Jungle Book. Next to none of Disney’s “classic” animated films do. I dislike more of them than I like, and am actively incited to rage by some choice selections. The cultural Disney-fication managed to escape my entire family, except for my millennial sister, who has been ensnared by the tumblr and pintrest brigade, and rediscovered a love of the Princess brand that I delight in pointing out to her never existed initially; not in our house. We were a Saturday Night At the Movies brood.
Likewise, it was years into adulthood that I ever cracked the book, and am thus immune to hazily framed memories of Baloo as interpreted by some caring familiar custodian. Still and all, when Disney announced that they were making a live action adaptation of their 1967 animated film, I was simultaneously not surprised and disappointed. Not surprised because once they had Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent out on screens, it seemed inevitable that the rest of the Walt era features would follow. This proved to be correct, considering the avalanche of adaptation announcements the studio has made since. And disappointed because it was yet another creatively hollow excuse to mine an existing IP rather than make something daring and unique. And they’d be monopolizing Jon Favreau’s time and talent in the same go. And when it was announced that the film would be entirely CG, filmed on near empty sound-stages, I disregarded it as yet another Avatar clone, seeking to ring those extra 3D and VIP seating dollars out of our pockets. That Andy Serkis was working on his own Mo-Cap version that would hem closer to the original book did little to dissuade me from the opinion that these would ultimately be vapid spectacle features, with as much substance as the animals they weren’t filming.
For the second time this year, I have been pleasantly surprised by Disney. Just as I went into Zootopia with zero expectations, and emerged considering that I’d just witnessed one of the best films of the year, so too did I leave Jungle Book impressed. It is by no means one of the best films of the year, but the product was a damned sight more entertaining, emotional, and felt like a genuine storytelling experience than I expected. And, unlike Alice, Maleficent or Kenneth Brannagh’s Cinderella, I was not only able to make it all the through Jungle Book, but wanted to. As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, spoilers runneth forward and back.
But let us not give Disney too much credit: this is still a blatant and utterly aware attempt to cram nostalgia down our throats. They’ve even designed their own special corporate logo just for these live action adaptations, which sees the opening swoop past the castle and its environment rendered in the animation style of the 9 Old Men. Clearly, someone in marketing expects to get use out of branding this subdivision of Disney’s output. Equally the film ends with the closing of a mid-century bound book, as was a trope the animations occasionally trotted out during the old days (put to best and most inventive use, I’d wager, in Winnie-the-Pooh). And all the way through the story, for every cleaver or unique direction Favreau and writer Justin Marks take the film in, it is constantly dragged back into alignment with the cartoon, to the extent that you can see the claw marks left behind. Which is a shame, because there is a lot of charm and joy in this film. If it had been left to go its own way, to find its own path through the jungle rather than being constantly rerouted by the episodic intervention of intrusive plot elements, it might have been great. Truly great, and not only because it was humourful and joyous in an age where the meaningless adjectives “dark and gritty” get attached to every project (as they already have Serkis’ version).
The worst of this is shoehorning in every plot point from the cartoon, regardless of how inappropriate it is to this film, which is the only thing of importance. The hypnosis scene with Kaa amounts to little more than a cameo, which is also used as an awkward dump for a heavily unnecessary flashback scene. But Kaa has to hypnotize him, it’s in the other movie. Likewise, the entire King Louie sequence is a weight around the neck, ankles, and spleen of the film. It is wholly lifted from the cartoon, as Louie isn’t a character in the book. And, it alone maintains the song from the accompanying cartoon sequence, which is maybe one of the least inorganic things I’ve seen in a movie in a long time (and I just saw a movie where Batman kills people). If context is king, then in a film where for an hour and half no one sings, then suddenly a giant monkey (actually a Gigantopithecus, as the film beats you over the head with in a new verse to the song, answering a question one of cares about) bursts out into song, it breaks every bit of the suspension of disbelief. It pulls you completely out of the movie, and makes you squirm uncomfortably in your seats. I know this because earlier in the film, Baloo and Mowgli sing the Bare Necessities, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world. It as the jungle version of characters singing along to a song on the radio. It felt real, and more importantly, it served Mowgli’s character arc. Getting Christopher Walkin to speak-sing I Wanna Be Like You feels like it was mandated by a corporate accountant. It’s all the more egregious considering that the film makes perfect use of both I Wanna Be Like You and Trust In Me over the amazing end credits.
But that is about the worst that I can say about this movie. Which is maybe the most amazing thing of all. Some of the voice work is wonky, which is just a case of hiring a recognizable name over hiring an actor who can actually do voice work, which is pretty much the going rate with tent-pole voice work these days. Gods forbid you actually get someone who can lend some sincerity or gravitas to a role, instead of worrying about filling up your movie poster with Academy Award nominees. Bill Murray and Idris Elba as Baloo and Khan respectively lead the pack (not intended), while fine actors like Scarlett Johansson and Giancarlo Esposito are just the wrong actors for their roles. The rest fall somewhere in the middle, with Ben Kingsley being especially neutral. He’s fine as Mowgli’s Gandalf, but he’s also stubbornly stoic, which isn’t what the role calls for all the time. Of course, the most infuriating thing about the ridiculousness of the Louie sequence is that Christopher Walkin steals the show. He’s amazing. He plays Louie as an old school Crime Boss, and is both menacing and affable. As an antagonist, he’s on the exact opposite side of the spectrum from Khan, and provides a wonderful palate cleanser. From the time he appears on screen to the time he starts to sing, he immediately becomes the most engaging character in the film. Then it gets weird. And only, like, three minutes have passed.
Which is why, really, they should have waited and used Louie as the primary baddie in the sequel. Because Louie’ effectiveness as a villain is undercut by the fact that he comes out of nowhere, and cannot compete with the film-long build-up of Shere Khan. That’s why the crowbarring in of the cartoon elements don’t work. They exist, not to serve the film, but to serve the nostalgia of the older film. And it’s garbage. If they had seeded Louie as a threat, made his monkey legions a recurring presence (hell, even just a “don’t trust monkeys” line from Bagheera), it would have went some way as establishing Louie as a presence. But dueling villains rarely work anyways, and Louie would have always taken second place to Khan as long as they were I the same film. Shere Khan is actually a sympathetic villain here. The movie does a great job of establishing his motivation, at least. You know why he wants Mowgli dead. You understand why it is so damned important to him. He isn’t just looking for a meal, he isn’t just being bad because he’s top of the food chain; he’s terrified. And he’s masking it with bravado. Yes, he’s a psychopath, but you get what drives him to act that way. There is a “there but for the grace of god go I” quality to him, a pathos that is buried under a considerable amount of rage. Baloo too gets great definition as a character, and carries a genuine arc. He’s not just filling a character archetype, he’s actually contributing to the plot, and the plot is contributing to him. Most of the rest of the characters, like Bagheera or Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o) don’t get arcs. Or really have much motivation beyond “keep Mowgli safe.” At least Raksha has the excuse of being his mother; Bagheera is literally the magical wizard that sweeps Mowgli off on adventure. Except he’s a panther, not a wizard. But he does disappear for the second act, which I think qualifies him for a pointy hat.
The film looks amazing, and only minorly and infrequently reminds you that everything short of the kid in the diaper is computer generated. In fact, there are moments where you have to remind yourself that everything you are seeing is computer generated. The effects team at Weta, who along with the Marvel films, seem to be on permanent retainer with Disney, really managed to make the jungle come to life. Things get a little hinky when there is slow movement, and Favreau puts too much motion blur into his shots when things are moving too fact, but as technical feats go, this one excels. Also, every bit of credit to Neel Sethi for a stellar performance as Mowgli. Considering that he’s acting against nothing, manages to draw out a more human performance than the combined casts of all three Star Wars prequels. Part of that might be down to the fact that Jim Henson Studios provided the stand-ins, where as George just had everyone taking to tennis balls. Or Hayden Christensen. You also have to give Favreau credit for pulling it off. It is hard to call this a live action movie when 99% of it is animated, but Favreau gets a great performance out of the kid, and handles the digital stuff deftly. It does feel like and extension and progression of the work he's done before. He might have started in the indies, but like Robert Zemekis before him, he keeps experimenting with filmmaking technology, and you can draw a evolutionary line, but in comfort and result, from Zathura to Iron Man to Jungle Book. This movie doesn't really have anything interesting to do or say with the 3D component, but I'd put Favreau on the short list of directors who are likely to really push he technical edge of filmmaking in the next ten years. Even if it is in corporate gigs like this.