The Jungle Book (2016) Review

Posted: April 22, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson Jungle-book-poster-600x857

Back in 2010, I never viewed Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland remake with anything more than groan-inducing disdain. The film struck me as yet another disappointment from the late career of Tim Burton with an over reliance on visual effects, an incoherent narrative, some awful characters, and was generally plagued by baffling decisions. The critical community seemed to mostly agree, but the rest of the world didn’t see it that way. The film made $330 million in North America and worldwide brought in a total gross of over one billion dollars. The film’s success has prompted a whole slew of live-action fairy tale adaptations, often with a darker spin, including an upcoming sequel to Burton’s Alice, Snow White and the Huntsman (and its sequel), Maleficent, Cinderella, Jack the Giant Slayer, Oz: The Great and Powerful, Pan, and a plethora of others still to come. I’ve mostly observed this trend from a far, and the few films I have seen as struck me as being “moderately decent” at best. I was pretty much ready to right off Disney’s live-action version of The Jungle Book as just another in this long line of mediocrity, but then the trailers started coming out and it looked like this could be a pretty legitimate blockbuster. The effects looked good, the action seemed exciting, and the more dangerous tone seemed appropriate to the story and film. The final push I needed were the films highly positive reviews and I thought this might be something worthwhile.

The film sticks pretty closely to the original; a young boy who lives in the jungle and interacts with a bunch of talking animals. That young boy is Mowgli (Neel Sethi), who has grown up amidst the wolves. He was raised by the wolf Raksha (Lupito Nyong’o) and watched over by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Though Mowgli struggles with acting like a proper wolf, he remains content and happy in the jungle. This contentment is threatened by Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a violent tiger who views humanity with vengeful hatred. Knowing Khan is willing to kill countless wolves who stand against him, Mowgli decides it is best he lives the wolf tribe. He and Bagheera begin a journey to the man-village for Mowgli to live, but this journey is sidetracked by various perils and new characters, including the lovable and light-hearted bear Baloo (Bill Murray).

The most immediately striking aspect of The Jungle Book are the visuals, which are genuinely pretty stunning. Not only are the animals composed entirely of CGI, but so too is the bulk of the jungle environment. Both of which look great here. The animals are detailed in their textures and movements and feel very real. Additionally, one never feels that they are watching characters performing against a flat green screen. The environments feel deep and Jon Favreau smartly uses physical elements on his set to augment the green screen. There are a few moments of minor artificiality, mostly due to how clean and crisp everything is or the alignment of CG animals with Mowgli, but these are really minimal problems. Kudos to Favreau for pulling this off visually. The guy had certainly worked with CGI before with movies like Iron Man, but I never expected him to be able to pull off something this visual effects heavy.

While the animals seem so real in terms of visuals, that illusion is largely shattered when they start talking. Put simply, it’s jarring to see such realistic looking animals talking speaking English. This was never a problem in the 1967 film given the animals were animated in a very cartoony style, but here it stands out given it almost looks like you could physically touch what is on screen. I think another issue here is just how casual the characters speak. They just sound like regular people. Compare this to the way Caesar speaks in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. He talks, but the sound has a primal, grunt-like quality. It sounds like what an animal would sound like if it spoke.

Given that the story is largely the struggle of a boy trying to survive in a harsh environment, I can’t help but think about how neat this film would have been had the animals never spoke at all. I realize that its wishful thinking to want that from a $175 million Disney film, but I think it would have made for a more interesting film. Of course, that’s a bit of a paradox given that one of my favourite things about this film is the voice cast. Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, and Lupito Nyong’o are all basically perfect choices for their roles and I especially loved Idris Elba as Shere Khan. He’s a genuinely threatening villain and Elba’s voice works wonders. I also thought newcomer Neel Sethi was pretty good as Mowgli and his character remains the same stubborn but likable kid he was in the 1967 film. I was a little disappointed with Kaa though. Scarlett Johansson’s voice work is great, but the character is barely present and just seems to exist to spout some exposition at Mowgli.

At its core, this version of The Jungle Book is basically an adventure film as we watch Mowgli contend with various dangers in the jungle. On that level, it mostly works. The aforementioned visual effects are extremely good, the character dynamics work, and the film has a good pace. The various set-pieces are mostly fun, even if none of them are anything special in and of itself. What really hurts the tension in this film are the songs. While the movie isn’t a musical, Favreau has opted to retain the songs “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You”. I know these songs are generally loved, but they really don’t work here. They don’t match the tone of the film and both dilute the tension of the moment. This is particularly true of the latter, which more or less ruins the excellent build-up given to the character of King Louie up to that point. The climax to the film is also a problematic and its messages seem confused.

Overall, I have pretty mixed feelings about The Jungle Book. It’s pretty stunning on a visual level and I did enjoy watching it, but the tension between making a thrilling adventure film or a fun Disney movie is never really resolved. Additionally, I kind of spent the bulk of the movie seeing the ways in which it could have been better. Still, on the whole the good does outweigh the bad. I imagine most audiences will have a fun time with this and it probably is the best film to come from this wave of live-action Disney/fairy tale remakes. The Jungle Book is a good film for anyone looking for some decent blockbuster thrills, but outside of the effects work, I can’t see this lasting.

B-

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