The Jungle Book and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios
Directed by Jon Favreau
In the early and mid-2000s, we got a deluge of straight to video sequels to classic animated features in the Disney catalog. Almost NONE of them were any good, and they thankfully died off by 2007. Now we’re in a new age of cannibalizing those cartoons by making them into live action, albeit with better results. These include Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, Cinderella, and now this with PLENTY more on the horizon. Can Disney continue to successfully rehash their older properties, or are we getting to the point of diminishing returns? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the adventures of Mowgli (Neel Sethi); a young child who was abandoned in the jungle and raised by wolves. Most of the animals don’t have any real beef with him, so they coexist without much strife to speak of until the fierce (and apparently ONLY) tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) shows up and declares that the boy must be turned over to him for death, else he will wage war on the other animals; particularly the wolf pack Mowgli’s a part of that also seems to be the highest ranking species here… or something. Rather than have his pack go to war over him, he leaves them behind and goes with his panther friend Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) who’s gonna lead him back to the human village which is the one place he’ll be safe from Shere Khan’s anti-human wrath. Unfortunately, the two get separated along the way and Mowgli instead finds himself moving in with a bear named Baloo (Bill Murray) who will teach him about chillaxing and eating honey. Will Mowgli truly be safe in his new home? What will Shere Khan do once he learns that Mowgli is not dead? Does this have at least the Bare Necessities to make it a good film!?
The movie’s good. Hell, it’s probably great. I just didn’t feel much when watching it, so I guess the elements that are gonna make this movie a hit for most people just didn’t do it for me which also means the flaws stand out that much more. There’s no doubt that this movie is beautifully shot with some very creative visual moments and it’s well acted across the board with Ben Kingsley and Idris Elba stealing every scene they’re in, but the story left little impression on me and the tone felt inconsistent in many places. It works on pretty much every level you’d want from a big budget kids film, but it also doesn’t feel very inspired; focusing more on making it as polished as it could be without really examining if this new version adds anything substantive to the source material or the previous adaptations.
I’ll let you know right now that I have never read the original book and my memories of the 1967 Disney film are almost non-existent. I can remember characters and the tone for the most part, but scene to scene moments and the overall narrative structure of the film are completely lost on me. For those interested in this being an alternate take on a story they already know, they may not have the same issues that those going into this as a relative newcomer would have. Then again, I’m ALSO coming at this as an adult watching a kid’s movie, so add that to the massive amount of skepticism my opinion should come with. To me, it all felt kind of pointless. They set out to remake The Jungle Book and by golly did they do exactly that with this feeling VERY much like something that’s resting on the laurels of its predecessor while trying to add its own (kind of generic) spin on the original; neither side really establishing dominance or blending well together.
For the most part, the big twist here is that it’s got the look and feel of a big budget blockbuster for a story that, at least in previous incarnations, wasn’t really about how many badass action sequences or sweeping shots of jungle vistas that Mowgli can jump his way through. It overall leads to a darker tone that works fine when it’s trying to BE that movie, but it refuses to go whole heartedly in that direction by having constant and bizarrely placed references to the original movie that leads to a somewhat uneven tone. The worst example of this has to be what they do with King Louie and the monkeys, all of whom have been changed from rascals and self-serving jerks to a straight up animal mafia. Sure, Christopher Walken is absolutely delightful in the role, but the scenes with him and the other monkeys are distressingly intense rather than fun and lighthearted. Now this in and of itself isn’t a problem as changes in adaptation are the primary reasons you’d WANT to remake a movie like this. The problem comes in when they then try to tie it back to the original by having Walken sing I Wanna Be Like You while he’s trying to intimidate Mowgli into giving him what he wants. I don’t particularly mind that he’s a gigantic and somewhat eccentric Mafioso who has plans to take over the jungle. Hell, ALL the bad guys in this have their creepy factor brought up to eleven. The difference is that Shere Khan doesn’t try to have a swinging jazz number in the middle of his chilling speeches.
When the shift to a darker tone here works, it works SPECTACULARLY with Idris Elba’s Shere Khan being the highlight of the whole film. He’s menacing on screen, has enough believable motivation to explain his actions, and he’s a very skilled manipulator; managing to not come off to many of the other animals as the sadistic monster that his and instead as an opposing side on a contentious issue. Though there is one thing I never understood which is that the rest of the animals seem to have a problem with him hunting for sport as well as for food. Then does everyone like Bagheera and the wolves when they have to kill animals to survive too? Is the Sport vs Food argument strong enough for the gazelles to be cool with Mr. Panther eviscerating their loved ones? It also doesn’t help that we’re going for super realistic here, so the animals look and move just like real ones, but they talk like humans, not only because of the lip flaps but also because of the completely incongruous references they make (Baloo mentions jogging yet this movie is set way before that word had that definition). The animals don’t look bad and I guess we can let Bill Murray say whatever the hell he wants, but it was another thing that just kept me from getting into it all that much. Also, I didn’t like the ending. I won’t spoil it, but it misses the ENTIRE point of the damn story and would rather tease the possibility of a sequel rather than ACTUALLY finish Mowgli’s character arc. It’s just another thing that points to this having modern day blockbuster sensibilities that don’t mesh well with what they’re trying to remake.
For most of this review I’ve been trying to justify my less than enthusiastic reaction to the movie which may be a bit unfair considering how much quality filmmaking there is in this. Some of the shots are downright brilliant like a transition from Kaa to a cave that’s more like something you’d see in a Michel Gondry movie than a summer blockbuster, or even a scene that shows the passage of time in a similar way to how Aronofsky pulled off a similar scene in Noah. The action is really good even if I thought there were a few too many SOMETHING BAD JUST HAPPENED OUT OF NOWHERE moments used as excuses to have Mowgli do his little boy parkour shtick with the mudslide being the most blatant example of a mundane scene being spiced up with some random action. The acting though is fantastic. I particularly like Ben Kingsley and Idris Elba, but Lupita Nyong’o as Mowgli’s wolf mother Rakasha has some great moments in here, Scarlet Johansson as Kaa is an inspired choice even if his appearance is only slightly larger than a cameo, and Bill Murray… well he’s Bill Murray and he can do whatever the hell he wants. It’s a REALLY stunning production, but I just couldn’t really care about any of it.
Not too long ago, Joseph Khan directed the fan film POWER/RANGERS which was a viciously satirical screed on the current state of grim and gritty and overly budgeted adaptations of material aimed at a younger audience. Now I won’t deny that this is an obnoxious trend in Hollywood (*cough* Transformers *cough*), but there are times when updating certain material with modern sensibilities has works. One of my favorite movies the year it came out was Maleficent which was darker and bigger than the source material it was inspired by, but it also was very strongly directed and had a point to make about women and their depiction in media. This movie has the polish and execution, but I’m still drawing a blank on what the point is. That doesn’t make it a bad movie as it’s still a well-executed (if somewhat) flawed film, it just makes it one that I’m not too keen to revisit again. Even with my lukewarm opinion, I’d still recommend it and at the theaters so that you get the full experience as one of the best parts here is the gorgeous cinematography. I won’t be remembering this for much longer, but that’s at least better than a terrible movie you remember.
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