Review: The Jungle Book

It seems Disney missed the point of that certain little ditty; “Bare Necessities”…

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Is there anything more mind-numbing than the Disney remake machine? Probably not. Each time it’s fired up (no doubt ignited using a flaming Mickey Mouse-emblazoned $1000 bill), I picture the relevant film’s accompanying Disney Store™ stock being designed and shipped long before us little people – precisely none of whom are exactly waiting with bated breath – are permitted our first glimpse of the latest unoriginal idea to be plucked from the archives, sprinkled with contemporary fairy dust, wiped down with nine figures worth of green-tinged paper, and shipped to a theater near you. All in glorious, colour-dulling three dimensions, of course.

This year, the remake machine declared it was the turn of Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale, The Jungle Book. Originally released by Disney as an animation back in 1967 – the form we continue to love and treasure; the 2016 version is a star-studded live-action/CGI affair, helmed by Iron Man director, John Favreau. My penchant for over-the-top cinematic cynicism could easily have gone into overdrive when the picture was announced, an issue that certainly wasn’t helped by the fuzzy, I-hope-the-CGI-in-the-final-print-looks-better-than-this blur that was the debut teaser trailer.

Keeping me in check, however, was the fact that this is the goddamn Jungle Book. Kipling’s collection of characters will forever be a literary master class, as will Disney’s original animated interpretation. Remember that daft 1994 live-action quasi-sequel/reboot starring Jason Scott-Lee (where did he go!?) as an adult Mowgli and Lena Headey (no-one will remember it being her, as I don’t believe anyone has watched it this century)? There’s no talking animals, and the concept has only fleeting links to the spirit of the legendary tale, but the mere idea of having Bagheera, Baloo, Shere Khan, Kaa, King Louie et al. on-screen, if only for a few moments at a time, got the project green-lit and meant it at least worth a watch.

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This time around, the traditional story prevailed. Mowgli is a kid; raised by wolves, protected by Bagheera, and the target of a mauling courtesy of Shere Khan. As a result, Mowgli – against his will – is forced to seek out the ultimate enemy of the jungle; the Man Village, along with it’s deadly “red flower”. This was the first aspect that felt a tad “meh. This was a chance to change the plot up a bit, to put a fresh spin on the wonderful set of characters the production had to work with. Mowgli as an adult has been done – and it was odd – but at least it was different. Be bold, just for once. Please. We’ll still give you money (see The Force Awakens, Jurassic World etc). Granted, a sequel appears to be very much on the cards, so I suppose I’ll grit my teeth at the catch-22 of being intrigued by a Disney sequel, and let this go for the time being.

What does stand out in a positive manner, right from the word go, is the visual effects. The trailer may have come across a bit on on the sketchy side, but the final cut is gorgeous, with every penny of the budget reflected in the rich rendering mechanics and spectacular realism of our various jungle friends. This includes Mowgli himself, who switches seamlessly between youngster Neel Sethi (who’s terrific, by the way) and his motion capture counterpart. The environments, too, are a wealth of vibrant texture; the jungle brought to life by way of some majestic cinematography and thoughtful directorial setups (Kaa’s introduction in particular), whether gazing across the landscape or racing across the jungle floor, up into the branches, and through the air.

The downside is that, behind the technical beauty, the substance is somewhat suspect. Justin Marks’ writing is decent enough for a story that’s difficult to flesh out (or, more accurately, rehash) for the umpteenth time. This problem quickly leads us back to my “meh” reaction to being told the same old story, as the result is a complete lack of tension throughout. Mowgli’s character is partly to blame. From the start he’s depicted as an overly wily, fairly fearless trooper, with lighting agility and a brain well beyond his years. Nothing he does is surprising, or all that interesting, and by the time we reach the climatic battle with Shere Khan, it’s a predictable yawn-fest (the tiger’s scrap with Baloo aside). There’s also A LOT of shoehorned filler, born out of the old “well, we’d better include that!” attitude present in most remakes. Kaa and her induced flashback is a prime example. Having the death of Mowgli’s father by the claws of Shere Khan shown to both Mowgli and us may have seemed like a clever justification for Kaa’s inclusion, but in reality the entire sequence could have been cut out without losing anything overall. Mowgli works just fine as a lost boy with a hazy, unknown past, and adults and kids alike are hardly likely to be pining for Kaa when bloody Baloo the Bear’s on offer.

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The middle section, based around Baloo, sees things pick up a bit following some initial drag toward the end of the first act. The comedic writing and timing are strong here, and Bill Murray’s voice work fits as naturally as you’d imagine it should. But, at the same time, nothing really happens. They collect some honey, chill out and all, but it weirdly all takes place within a stone’s throw of the nearby Man Village, which apparently exists for no practical reason other than to give Mowgli access to fire later on. Despite being right next to each other, they never cross paths. Mowgli doesn’t go down to take a look, even out of curiosity. In turn, no humans seem to hunt in an area utterly teeming with dangerous (and delicious) wildlife.

The overall tone in general suffers little hiccups like this. Later on, for instance, in King Louie’s temple, the big man himself is portrayed as a brooding, philosophical being with ambition beyond his species; yet a (granted fantastically subtle) Apocalypse Now reference is followed immediately by an army of monkeys launching into “I Wanna Be Like You”. It just feels a little off, shoehorned if you will. Some of the voice acting, too, contributes to such a sentiment. Christopher Walken can’t seem to decide if King Louie is a deep thinker or a blasé gangster-type, while Idris Elba’s fearsome Shere Khan had me stifling a laugh each time he inadvertently lurched into John Luther territory. I half-hoped one of the wolves was named Alice, just so Khan could let out a deep sigh while exhaling a lengthy, frustrated, “Allliiiiccccee”, before putting on a big coat and brutally breaking the law in a twisted attempt to uphold it. Oh wait. On the plus side, Ben Kingsley’s vocals were made for a character such as Bagheera. His brief bouts of back-and-forth banter with Murray provide quite the highlight.

Despite having nothing but love for its characters, the reason I never wanted The Jungle Book to be remade is that its iconic natures stems solely from said characters, with any real depth taking a back seat. It explores many classical themes (identity, society, honour, sacrifice), but they’re more apparent in a “moral lesson”-type manner, consistent with any timeless children’s tale. This isn’t a bad thing – far from it – but it brings me full circle back toward the cynical Disney remake machine mantra that I’ll forever continue to chant. And that is the fact that The Jungle Book just didn’t need to be remade. Sure, one could suggest that kids may not be familiar with the 1967 animated version, or are more attuned to modern adaptations (i.e. flashy CGI – God help us all), but such arguments don’t stand up under scrutiny. What, they’re going to remake every classic children’s film at the fifty-year mark purely for the sake of the little ones’ modern taste? No. They’ll do it because $$$. COME UP WITH SOMETHING NEW.

If this all sounds a tad dramatic (and it is), bear in mind that Warner Bros. is planning its own star-studded live-action/CGI Jungle Book picture, to be released in 2018. Two years, two studios, two epic-scale projects, and one unoriginal story. Oh the irony of including a lighthearted number by the name of “Bare Necessities”…

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