This one

This one’s worth skipping.

Barely a necessity... ugh, sorry.

Barely a necessity… ugh, sorry.

Another year, another live-action retelling of a Disney classic that was desired by most probably no-one. In a way, this one makes more sense than average. Ruyard Kipling‘s Jungle Book tales have been re-told enough times as it is and it’s understandable that filmmakers in this day and age (i.e. the age of Planet of the Apes) would want to experiment with visual effects technology in terms of 3D animals and motion-capture.

Baloo and Mowgli, best pals, in 'The Jungle Book'.

Baloo and Mowgli, best pals, in ‘The Jungle Book’.

The thing is, though, that Jon Favreau‘s The Jungle Book is no retelling of the Kipling story. It is very much a remake of the Disney version, complete with some of the Sherman Brothers songs, and I assume that’s a more profitable choice. I wouldn’t say that makes the movie a complete failure – I’m sure fans of the original won’t feel betrayed – but it’s not as great as a serious adaptation of the book could have been. I theorize.

Nevertheless, you all know the basic gist of it. Mowgli the man-cub (played here by talented newbie Neel Sethi) is abandoned in the Indian jungle and found by a black panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). He is raised by a family of wolves (the parents voiced by Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito), a vicious Bengal tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba) wants him dead because of the wounds Mowgli’s kind has given him, and a laid-back bear named Baloo (Bill Murray) befriends him. I suppose the casting is somewhat appropriate. Bill Murray took over Baloo after Phil Harris, just as Bill Murray’s Garfield was followed by a terrible voice synthesizer that sounds like Harris taking on the role of “Garfielf“.

Of course Mowgli happens across several other beloved characters as he ventures through the wild. There’s King Louie, now a Gigantopithecus instead of an orangutan and inexplicably voiced by Christopher Walken (he even keeps a damn cowbell within his royal treasury), who wants Mowgli to teach him how man-kind conjures the “red flower”, i.e. fire. And then there’s the hypnotic python Kaa, this time with the lethally sexy voice of Scarlett Johansson.

This is one of those times where I have no problem with the gender of a character being changed, as it seems more thought went into it than “we need diversity for its own sake”. Kaa is supposed to be a snake with seductive, hypnotizing powers and having the enticing voice of Scarlett Johansson is thus an improvement on the character in that aspect. To be fair, the original Jungle Book had a grand total of zero (important) female characters so wanting diversity isn’t exactly uncalled for either.

king kong louieAs for the characters in general, I had a difficult time seeing them as anything but the actors, standing in booths and recording voice-overs for animated animals. I just now praised the choice of casting Johansson and I did find it priceless to see a giant prehistoric simian that sounds like Christopher Walken, but I rarely saw characters. It is sad that actors with greater star power still get selected over trained voice actors who would have played the roles better, although I suppose that that’s the world we live in now.

I should say, though, that most convincing is the performance given by Neel Sethi. It may just seem like he’s “pretty good for a child actor” at first, until you see how naturally he appears to interact with digital creatures that weren’t actually in front of him. We’ve seen adult actors do worse than this in equally CG-heavy films (Revenge of the Sith comes to mind) so I’d say Sethi deserves some kudos. What if this was always the right way to use child actors? Place them inside a green-screen room, let them run around and use their childlike imagination for a while, and then animate a movie around it.

Hell, Mowgli might even be the only thing in this movie that wasn’t made in a computer. Are the animal effects admirable? Sure (even though I doubt anyone can make talking animals look fully natural). Is the heavily detailed jungle fascinating to look at? Oh yes. It’s just that it suffers from some of the typical problems. There are several lighting inconsistencies (Sethi is clearly studio-lit whilst his surroundings are lit via physically based rendering) and instances of physical realism being abandoned for the sake of showing off how many details we can give to a CG animal’s fur. The aforementioned Apes movies were similar in that regard. When will the primates catch a break?

Unlike, say, James Cameron‘s Avatar, I guess there’s more to this movie than just the CGI and how real the not-real settings look. The relationship between Bagheera, Baloo and Mowgli has the right dynamic, Shere Khan makes for a genuine menace, and King Louie is as fun as can be. It’s overall a technically impressive but tonally bumpy, non-sensical and sometimes violent film that older fans might enjoy slightly (it is a much more respectful Disney remake than Cinderella  or, better yet, Maleficent) and kids will enjoy a lot if they’re not easily frightened. A few children at the screening I went to would periodically leave the auditorium, not to pee apparently, but just to get away for a little while.

Another Jungle Book movie directed by Andy Serkis is coming out in 2018, and instead of cashing in on the “Disney remake” bandwagon like seemingly everyone else in Hollywood right now, it appears as though this one will stay true to the original Ruyard Kipling story. As much as I adore hearing “I Wanna Be Like You” as sung by Christopher Walken as King Kong Louie, that’s the Jungle Book movie I want to see.

EDIT: I went to see Jungle Book a second time with a fellow Walken fan. This time a kid asked his dad if he could play with his phone for a while because King Louie scared him. Ouch, Favreau.

2.5/5 whatever

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