The Jungle Book
It might seem like I went into The Jungle Book with my mind made up, since I had my doubts in advance, and as it turns out, I didn’t love it. It comes armed with a number of very evident virtues, not least quite incredible, top-to-bottom (well, aside from Neel Sethi) photoreal CGI that pulls off the estimable feat of being anthropomorphic without ever entering the realm of uncanny valley. In addition, this is a much more successful take on Disney animated classics than last year’s Cinderella retread. And yet, it still has its cap firmly in hand to its 1967 predecessor. Where Jon Favreau’s film succeeds is invariably where it has the mind to break free from those shackles, which unfortunately it isn’t often enough.
Disney chairman Alan Horn talked up the picture prior to release as one he envisaged taking a more realistic (darker, more muscular) approach than Wolfgang Reitherman’s original. As such, he held his hands up that any failure could be pinned on him. Luckily, he hasn’t come away with egg on his face, but as I see it he could have and should have pushed further. The best elements of The Jungle Book (in particular the terrific first half hour) are dramatic ones, but whenever it takes its pedal off the metal and rehearses Mowgli’s interactions from the earlier film, it’s caught performing an inferior riff on superior material (right down to the songs, which while not as ill-fitting or intrusive as some reports suggest, are simply unnecessary).
I doubt its deficiencies will matter to most, though, as this remake’s trump card is constantly on display, in every inch of every scene. There’s never a moment you’d believe this was filmed on a soundstage, so detailed and persuasive is every pixel. If Baloo is a fairly generic rendition of a bear (you can see CGI bears during any given ad break, riding the tube), more so as he is voiced by Bill Murray doing a never-more-generic rendition of Bill Murray (which means he can’t fail to make you laugh occasionally – Baloo’s ruse concerning hibernation is very funny, his response(s) to being overrun with apes likewise – but he’s running on fumes), Bagheera is quite stunning, and Ben Kingsley, probably more similar to the original’s (Sebastian Cabot) character than anyone else in the cast, is a masterfully reassuring vocal presence: warm, responsible, compassionate.
Idris Elba is the surprise, as I didn’t think he stood a chance making Shere Khan distinctive (I mean relative to George Sanders; who could top George Sanders? It’s quite impossible). He scores by being distinctly different. To borrow from Anthony Horowitz’s controversial comments on the actor as a potential James Bond, he makes Shere Khan the very opposite of suave (although I’d hesitate to call him “street”). This incarnation is as rough, tough, cruel and cunning as they come, scarred by a close encounter with man’s red flower and thus given strong motivation in his hatred for Mowgli.
This is the argument for a new reading of Kipling at its most persuasive. Where Sanders is a very menacing hoot, Elba is relentless and terrifying. After their failure to deliver the man cub to him, Shere Khan arrives casually and confidently at the wolf den, where he assumes Akela’s (Giancarlo Esposito) top spot before killing him. Later he plays with the young cubs in the most unnerving manner, as Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) looks on in dread of what he may administer next. Arriving after Elba’s very funny performance in Zootropolis/ Zootopia/ Zoomania, he may have finally found his Hollywood niche, just unexpectedly invisibly.
If this is the kind of approach we might expect from the now-not-at-all-imminent Andy Serkis’ Jungle Book: Origins, rumoured to be (even) darker in tone, I’m much more interested in it than the already announced The Jungle Book 2. As much as some of the changes here work (offing Akela), others have mixed results. Having Mowgli’s father killed by Shere Khan is classically lazy Hollywood shorthand motivation; it’s all-too-familiar, turning the picture into a faintly bland revenge tale and requiring young Sethi to emote a little more than is in his wheelhouse (Favreau generally knows best how to shoot around his limitations as a performer, bringing out his naturalness, but there’s no mistaking him for a prodigy, particularly when required, near enough, to exclaim “Get the hell out of my jungle!”)
It’s also, in part, quite a strange sequence with which to end the picture; Mowgli burns down half the jungle in order to get even with one tiger (that only wants to kill man anyway, and generally observes the rules of its habitat). Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks appear to be commenting on the inherent capacity of man to wreak havoc and destruction no matter what his better intentions may be, so should Mowgli’s reward for indulging such selfish, baser instincts really be a hero’s welcome, and acceptance and celebration as never before?
It reminded me of the much-derided climax to Man of Steel, in which Superman topples Zod but at the expense of many Metropolitans, only with animals suffering instead. Perhaps Mowgli will meet his own Batman in the sequel, and be asked to recompense for all those unfortunate creatures he inadvertently burned to death? With this, and elephants building dams and diverting rivers – traditionally the kind of activity that puts paid to natural environments – it felt like the picture was sending out some muddled messages (the elephants also seem remarkably capable, except when it requires a human to save a babe of theirs from a pit).
As much of a problem is that Mowgli remaining in the jungle for a cash-grab sequel removes the more impactful rites of passage element, and bittersweet ending, of the animated version (although, to be fair, Kipling has his cake and eats it, with Mowgli journeying back and forth between worlds). There isn’t really any price to be paid for anything here, and no lesson to be learned. The standing in solidarity against Shere Khan might have been a stronger trope if Mowgli had been less instrumental in his defeat. Instead, and throughout, he displays a rather wearisome flair for MacGyver-esque inventiveness and gadgetry.
Other sequences are fine but lack sufficient individuality to stand out. Generally, the 3D is immersive, in that it creates a whole world but you’re aren’t constantly conscious of the effect it is having. A sequence such as Kaa the snake (Scarlett Johansson) hypnotising Mowgli is more obviously pulling out the stops, but as with the darker tone, it could have gone further. As such, it either suggests the limits of Favreau’s visual imagination or uneasiness over really going for broke.
By the time we reach King Louie (Christopher Walken) and his temple ruins, I was feeling the fatigue of a picture straightjacketed into hitting the marks of the original when it should have been encouraged to breathe more, and become sufficiently its own thing. Walken’s idiosyncratic delivery, particularly when presented in a manner nodding to Colonel Kurtz, is arresting (and he squeezes Gigantopithecus into a lyrical, which takes some doing), but the sequence is generally by-numbers, replacing Reitherman’s delightfully witty choreography with laboured, effects-heavy mass-destruction.
So The Jungle Book is proving a massive hit. It reached the top, it didn’t stop, but that’s not what’s bothering me. Favreau and his artists have undoubtedly rendered a triumphant visual feast, but it isn’t enough to overwhelm memories of the original, comparison with which is unavoidable due to sticking resolutely to the same plotline, and sporadically also forcing in its tunes. None of the live-action Disneys so far have sufficiently embraced the chance to do something fresh. The Jungle Book has the makings of such a sensibility, but ultimately lacks the courage of its convictions. I’d like to think the sequel might be more forceful, since it will no longer have the animation to source (although you can bet we’ll get “untapped material”, thus the elephants and vultures will talk next time), but Favreau’s track record on follow-ups doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.