Review: The Jungle Book (2016)

I usually try to get these seen and written as close to release as possible. It’s more useful for everyone, right? Yet, when it came to Jon Favreau’s remix of The Jungle Book, I found that my usual get-up-and-go had got-up-and-gone. I think the reasons for this are two-fold, if you’ll indulge me briefly.

1) I still find any over reliance on CG to create photo-realism something of a barrier when trying to immerse myself in a film, especially the mimicking of animals (see my basic disengagement with Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi).  I find myself looking for the faults, constantly reminding myself of the trick. This is my problem, granted, but it tends to pull me out of the movie.

2) And I almost feel ashamed to say this… I’ve never had any real familiarity or history with The Jungle Book. I’ve never read Kipling’s stories. I only saw the beloved 1960’s Disney cartoon about six months ago (and it generated, I’m sorry to say, little more than a shrug). I’m not connected to it’s world. And knowing it’s adored reputation, I was loath to saunter in like a spoil-sport ruining everyone else’s fun if it turned out I wasn’t as thoroughly charmed as those carrying the film’s spirited word of mouth.

But that’s enough about me and how wrong I’ve been. Having belatedly gotten Favreau’s film under my belt, I can join the chorus sounding it’s praises (with a little caveat or two thrown in for good measure).

For those who have also been living under a rock, The Jungle Book tells of the adventures of young man-cub Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi); a human child raised by wolves on the plains. When scarred and embittered roost-ruling tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) calls for Mowgli to be brought before him for execution, Mowgli decides to leave the pack and return to his own people, guided by his trusted friend and mentor Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley). His journey brings about an assortment of adventures, unites him with easy-going bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and there’s (still) even time for a song or two.

This is also the latest in Disney’s recent (and largely failed) gambit to give it’s most iconic animated films a live action spin. Sethi is almost the only fully living breathing actor in the film, as Favrau has elected to go big or go home by using computer effects and motion capture to fill in all of the blanks. Thus everyone else named so far (and to come) provides their vocal talents in the main and a wealth of visual effects crews work their magic. And it is magic.

The technology may have finally caught up with the ambition. Initially the sight of photo-realistic animals speaking in human tongues carries a basic mismatch. Screenwriter Justin Marks, evidently aware that this can be a hard sell, does his best to bed us in with a lengthy talky section near the film’s opening, as the varying species gather at a watering hole and the film’s gears start turning. It’s a wise move it turns out, because it allows the viewer to accustom themselves to the film’s sensibility. From here on, and with only a couple of vocal wrong notes, the viewer buys the trick. And the animation is remarkable. The detail immeasurable and impressive. In one or two cases it’s also nuanced enough for the actors’ physical traits and signatures to shine through in the performances (particularly Bill Murray’s and Christopher Walken’s).

With disbelief temporarily suspended the film bounds along, rushing through story points and checking in with old highlights. To those familiar with the text, this may seem a little like cliffnoting, but as an outsider looking in, the brisk pace is welcome and helps bring in a tighter film. Of Mowlgi’s encounters only Kaa the snake feels too sketched in and inconsequential. Scarlett Johansson feels like a bum note in the casting and lends a noticeable vocal disparity to what’s appearing on screen. And while the sequence does lend the film a natural opportunity for some necessary back story, it stands out for the greater successes that surround it.

In terms of beautifully entwined performance and realisation, both Kingsley and Murray are golden. Kingsley imbues Bagheera with wisdom and a certain regal quality befitting his appearance, while Murray’s breezy attitude goes hand-in-paw with the laid back Baloo. The aforementioned Walken is memorable in a late turn as gigantic ape King Louie, though the casting again feels like a slight mismatch with the character; as mesmerising as he is, this is arguably the moment that comes closest to pulling the viewer back out of the movie. And while Elba does good by Shere Khan, the greater credit must go the animation team responsible for bottling his performance within one of 2016’s most ferocious and charismatic villains.

Unfortunately, this brings us to perhaps the film’s weak link… Seethi is fine as Mowgli, but at times his inexperience betrays him. Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that he had a very difficult task here, particularly for someone so young, acting in virtually every scene of a movie in which the finished visuals wouldn’t be clear to him for months to come.  With that in mind he’s not bad. Perhaps, with so much unexpectedly exceptional work surrounding him, his ordinariness unfortunately asserts itself.

A word to the wise. Favreau’s photo realistic ambitions also extend to giving these wild beasts more of their real world ferocity. There is a marked sense of danger and violence to some of the movie’s scenes which may push the action into darker territory than some parents may have liked (was anyone else reminded of Predator when it came to the final showdown?).  This very much works in the film’s favour, but it may give some of you paws (ha) for thought. Also, in light of this, the inclusion of the two songs – while understandable fan service – feels like exactly that. Fun as they are, they’re a little incongruous.

But by no means is this enough to capsize a thoroughly charming and engaging movie, one that may even hold up for many years of scrutiny to come. Granted, when the action amps up there are occasional moments where the CG reality gets tested but, by and large, this is an incredible visual accomplishment, helmed with confidence by the malleable Favreau.

Score: 4

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