D: Jon Favreau / 105m
Cast: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Garry Shandling, Brighton Rose, Jon Favreau, Sam Raimi
The first of two live action versions of Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale – the other, just called Jungle Book and directed by Andy Serkis, is due in 2018 – Disney’s remake of their own beloved animated classic arrives with much fanfare and enough hype to stop even Shere Khan in his bloodthirsty tracks. It’s taken over $300 million at the international box office already, and the House of Mouse is keen to get director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Marks back for a sequel (surprise, surprise). The CGI environment created for the characters, and against which token human Mowgli (Sethi) interacts, is incredibly detailed and realistic, while the final showdown between tiger and man-cub is… well… it’s okay.
And that’s the problem with the movie as a whole: it’s okay. When the best thing you can say about a movie is that the backgrounds look realistic, then it’s a sure sign that whatever Favreau and co were aiming for, they didn’t actually achieve it. And yet the material is there to be taken advantage of, as Disney did nearly fifty years ago when they made the animated version. But this version makes some significant changes to the original, and while you don’t want an exact carbon copy of what went before, there’s too much that’s different for the movie to work as well as its predecessor.
First, there’s the musical elements. Shoehorned into the movie are two of the animated version’s most enjoyable songs, The Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You. This isn’t a musical version of the story, and yet these two songs are included, and awkwardly at that. There’s no reason for them to be there, unless Disney felt that modern audiences, perhaps weaned on the animated version, would feel upset if they weren’t included. As it is, The Bare Necessities is given a nostalgic feel that helps offset the oddness of its inclusion, but the same can’t be said of I Wanna Be Like You, an uncomfortable rendition of which is given by Christopher Walken as King Louie, a giant orang-utan you half suspect has been eating his tribe in order to get so big. Some viewers may well be happy to see these songs included, but in terms of the movie itself they’re interruptions to the flow of the movie and the narrative.
But the flow of the movie is also a problem. Favreau is a capable director but he doesn’t always get the pace of a movie right – check out Iron Man 2 (2010) as a prime example. Here he connects each scene as if they were part of a larger puzzle and he’s got too much time to put it all together. This leads to stretches where The Jungle Book pads along like Shere Khan at the watering hole, full of intention but held back by an unwanted need for restraint. It makes for a choppy, uneven movie that holds the attention completely in certain scenes, but then abandons that attention in favour of just moving on.
And then there’s the ending, changed from the animated version – where Mowgli heads off to the man village because that’s where his future lies – to reflect… well, it’s not altogether clear. Mowgli has clearly found his true place in the jungle, but it’s at odds with what Shere Khan and even Bagheera have been saying all along: that Mowgli will grow up to be a man, and man has no place in the jungle (it’s even part of the jungle law, but the script ignores this practically the moment it’s been brought up). Back in 1968 this bittersweet ending was the perfect conclusion to Mowgli’s story, but here it seems like a cynical decision to help set up and ensure the sequel(s) that Disney are looking for. In a weird way, the script’s decision to integrate Mowgli more fully with the jungle environment makes him seem like another Tarzan in the making.
On the plus side, Favreau has assembled a great cast to give vocal life to the animal characters, with Murray on fine form as Baloo, and Johansson proving especially effective as Kaa. Kingsley is somewhat swamped by the script’s decision to make Bagheera almost entirely like a resigned schoolmaster, Nyong’o and Esposito make the most of their underwritten wolf parts, while Walken does his best to make King Louie frightening, but weirdly, sounds more like Kevin Spacey doing an impression of Christopher Walken than Walken himself. And then there’s Idris Elba, cast as Shere Khan; somehow his gruff tones don’t seem to suit the role, and his scenes have an awkwardness to them in terms of his voice not fitting the look of the character. In effect, it’s as if his voice has been badly dubbed.
As the only human in the movie, a lot rides on the abilities of Sethi, and while he’s certainly proficient, his performance isn’t as effective as it could be. In the scene where Mowgli decides to leave the jungle and go to the man village, his lack of experience leaves the scene feeling perfunctory rather than highly emotive, and you get the sense that Favreau was unable to get more from him. If Sethi is to take part in any further movies as Mowgli then it’s to be hoped that his experience this time round proves to be the bedrock for better performances in the future.
All in all, The Jungle Book isn’t a bad movie per se, it’s just that it doesn’t have that spark that would have made it a truly enjoyable movie. And despite its evident popularity with audiences worldwide, it’s likely that its success is due to brand recognition rather than any inherent quality. Remakes are a tricky business to get right, as any studio or production company should know, but with Disney – and it shouldn’t be the case – you somehow expect something a little bit better, and a little bit more entertaining. That it’s just okay is perhaps worse than its being just bad.
Rating: 5/10 – nowhere near the live action remake audiences really needed, The Jungle Book suffers from being too clinical and too respectful of itself (if not Kipling’s original tale); with too many moments that pass without emphasis or emotion, it remains a beautiful movie to watch, but an empty one as well.