Disney’s recent trend of remaking their classic animated features as slightly imaginative live-action cash-grab ventures continues with The Jungle Book. This is a movie that does two things: shows us all how far Jon Favreau has fallen since leaving the Iron Man franchise and provides evidence that some junior exec at the House of Mouse must’ve got rip-roaring drunk before seeing Life of Pi.
There’s nothing wrong with reliving past victories, but there’s very little in the finished film to warrant it being made in the first place. It doesn’t explore any deeper themes than the animated version, nor does it use the realism of its extravagantly CGI’d animal kingdom to enhance the ferocity of the story’s conflicts. There’s a stampede scene where young Mowgli (Neel Sethi) hides from the nefarious Shere Khan (voiced deliciously by Idris Elba) amid a herd of buffalo that’s kinetic and intense, but it doesn’t come close to the level of brutality in a similar sequence from The Lion King. What is the purpose of staging this story in a simulacrum of our real world if not to raise the stakes?
Well, really, it’s to repackage this well-worn narrative as a tentpole event that kids will come to but the parents won’t mind sitting through. This may have worked with Maleficent, but this picture takes far fewer risks than that Angelina Jolie vehicle. It largely retreads iconic moments not only from the original animated feature, but other Disney titles as well. For instance, Mowgli’s parkour-esque running through the jungle calls to mind the Tony Hawk grinding of Tarzan. The more Favreau name checks the Disney titans that came before him the more your mind drifts to the world of 2D animation, and the more that happens, the stranger this live-action world seems. The cinematography captures the animals and their surroundings with such clarity and precision that it resembles Discovery’s “Planet Earth” documentary series.
This hyperrealism flies in the face of the film’s otherwise juvenile tenor. The bent of the humor and the sweep of the adventure both skew towards young children (which, hey, they should), and there’s something really disorienting about a straight-to-video kid’s movie being skinned over a meticulously arranged recreation of nature. It’s supposed to be all spectacle and flash, but in low-light scenes, your 3D glasses are likely to obscure the vibrant color scheme that makes this movie so appealing to youngins in the first place. On the plus side, Favreau uses 3D here the way James Cameron did in Avatar, to imply immeasurable depth and scope to the expanse of the jungle, rather than for cheap pop out of the screen moments.
So, the story hasn’t been updated and the imagery stands at odds with the tone, but there is some joy to be found in The Jungle Book and it’s all in the casting. Elba’s sinister take on Shere Khan is only intensified by the wounded pride he drapes around this predator. Bill Murray and Ben Kingsley as Baloo and Bagheera, respectively, provide no-brainer pleasures with their spot-on but expected performances. The real surprise is Lupita Nyong’o, who buoys Raksha’s maternal arc with more genuine emotion than the rest of the film can muster. Between this and her turn as Maz Kanata in The Force Awakens, she’s proven to be one of the most gifted voice talents in Hollywood today.
Also, it’s refreshing to see a child character like Mowgli act like an actual kid. Neel Sethi has a real lived-in spontaneity to his screen-time that almost masks how odd it is seeing a bunch of near-life animals talk to each other in pat, telegraphed dialogue. It’s just a shame this film didn’t have anything more to offer such a talented cast.