It’s a simple, universal, archetypal story. A young boy is left alone in a savage environment, he looks for a family among animals, and after proving himself through countless dangers, he goes back to live among his fellow humans as a master of both worlds. It’s a tale that examines such classic themes as family and identity, in addition to the ever-shifting balance between nature and civilization. Little wonder that this story has already been adapted countless times across every possible medium. To say nothing of Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book”, The Boy and the Beast, and other stories that overtly draw heavy inspiration from the original Rudyard Kipling classic.
With this in mind, I didn’t greet the first news of The Jungle Book (2016) with disdain the way so many others did. Yes, it was very clearly made by Disney as part of their ongoing “live-action remakes of our old animated classics” phase, but what of it? Cinderella (2015) was part of that same fad, and while the results were hardly perfect, that film was perfectly capable of standing on its own. It was a film that genuinely tried to present the old familiar fairy tale in a way that was new and beautiful and inspiring. If Kenneth Branagh could wring so much out of what should have been a cash-in studio hatchet job, there’s no reason why Jon Favreau couldn’t have done an equally good job of taking this time-honored story and making it his own.
He didn’t. Certainly not for lack of trying, but he didn’t.
To be clear, the film is a technical marvel. The 3D effects are wonderfully immersive. The camerawork is beautifully dynamic, and the editing is tight. The CGI is magnificent from start to finish. There are so many scenes of the characters running and jumping and tumbling through the jungle, and they’re all brilliantly presented. The animation is vivid and pulsing with life.
Then we have the cast. Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Bill Murray as Baloo, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito as Mowgli’s adoptive wolf parents. The dearly departed Garry Shandling gets a couple of scenes as a neurotic porcupine. On paper, every single one of these casting choices looks perfect. And sure enough, every single one of them elevates their character simply by virtue of being cast. Even Christopher Walken — who might not have been anyone’s first choice to play King Louie — makes it work like only he could.
(Side note: Keep an ear out for Emjay Anthony and Max Favreau as a couple of the wolf cubs. One of them played Jon Favreau’s son in Chef, and the other is Favreau’s actual son.)
As for newcomer Neel Sethi, he perfectly looks the part. He’s just the right age, and I love that Mowgli is played by a debut actor with no previous baggage. I especially love the rough-and-tumble nature of this portrayal — Sethi does a great job of climbing and tumbling through a very physical role, and the character’s scars are a brilliant visual touch that adds so much to the character.
On a purely shallow and superficial level, everything looks good. But then we go a bit deeper, and things start to fall apart.
First of all, the characters have the unfortunate habit of opening their mouths. The line deliveries are terribly uneven across the board, and it was often hard to forget that these were actors in a recording booth, or maybe wearing mo-cap equipment on a green screen somewhere. This was especially bad in the case of Johansson, who doesn’t read her lines with any of the necessary warmth or seduction.
That said, even if I’m picturing Scarlett Johansson instead of a hypnotic snake that whispers sweet and sultry poison, the point stands that I’m picturing Scarlett Johansson whispering sweet and sultry poison. So in an indirect and unintentional way, the idea still gets across. It’s like that with pretty much everyone else in the cast.
Of course, the screenplay is also a factor. For those who’ve never heard of screenwriter Justin Marks, there was a time when he was supposed to be the next great up-and-coming screenwriter. At some time or another in the waning years of the ’00s, Marks had been attached to adaptations of Voltron, He-Man: Masters of the Universe, Hack/Slash, Shadow of the Colossus, and seemingly every other geek-friendly project to ever get stuck in development hell. Unfortunately, all of this happened before Marks actually made his debut as a produced screenwriter.
That debut turned out to be Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. In the fallout of that notorious bomb, everything that Marks had touched suddenly became radioactive. That was seven years ago, and he hadn’t written a thing since then until now.
Marks never really got to prove whether he was an overhyped mediocrity or a genuinely good writer who had the misfortune to get bloody as he broke through. Alas, based on what I’m seeing here, I’m inclined to lean toward the former. There’s way too much clumsy exposition, there’s a lot of heavy-handed dialogue, there’s a terrible abuse of voice-over, and the structure feels shoehorned into a standard and predictable paint-by-numbers plot layout.
To be fair, there were a few decisions so clearly out of sync with the rest of the film that they had to have been mandated by the studio instead of the writer or director. A prominent example concerns the changed ending. On the one hand, the “master of both worlds” element is still implemented in a way that kinda works, but it comes across as weak sauce without the stronger emotional punch of the more iconic ending. I expect that opinions will differ on this, but as far as I’m concerned, the altered story beat is so essential to The Jungle Book that it renders the whole point of adaptation moot. I don’t know if it was done to make for a happier ending, or to make things easier for the (already greenlit) sequel. Either way, it’s bullshit.
Then we have the songs. It positively baffles me that neither Maleficent nor Cinderella (2015) were forced to use any songs from their respective animated forebears in any prominent way, and yet songs from The Jungle Book (1967) had to be crammed in here. What makes it even worse is that Sethi and Murray don’t even bother trying to make “The Bare Necessities” sound anything like music, and John Debney integrates that song into the score without any apparent clue of what the song is about or what makes it so effective.
For me, pretty much the entire movie can more or less be summed up in the scene where Mowgli first meets King Louie. The two of them are draped in shadow, standing face to face in this towering castle of ancient stone. And there’s King Louie; a monumental, powerful, imposing, legitimately dangerous presence, voiced with sinister flair by Christopher Walken… who then breaks into a rousing rendition of “I Wanna Be Like You.” That’s not just tonal whiplash, that’s goddamn tonal blunt force trauma.
The Jungle Book (2015) is undeniably great fun to watch, and that counts for a lot. The visuals are a product of so much ambition and effort and energy that it definitely makes for a great film to look at. Unfortunately, the brains and the heart just aren’t there. The plot is predictable, the dialogue is rough, the Disney songs are crowbarred-in, and the ending was altered at the expense of the themes that made this story such a classic in the first place. All of this to say that the script wasn’t nearly as much of a priority.
It’s a movie that falls somewhere in between the two previous live-action do-overs, not as uninspired and muddled as Maleficent, but not as creative and passionate as Cinderella (2015). It’s a film that sufficiently complements the animated version, but fails to stand on its own merit.
As a quick and easy film to enjoy with the kids, this absolutely fits the bill. But don’t go in expecting anything more.