THEATRICAL REVIEW: The Jungle Book 3D (2016)
Produced by: Jon Favreau, Brigham Taylor
Screenplay by: Justin Marks
Edited by: Mark Livolsi
Cinematography by: Bill Pope
Music by: John Debney
Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Garry Shandling
Based on the 1967 animated Disney feature and the book by Rudyard Kipling
Okay, how does this work again? It’s been a while since I last wrote a review! Forgive me if I am rusty. Hooray for job searching…
I wasn’t particularly interested in the latest adaptation of The Jungle Book. Let alone that this one was based on what I consider to be one of Disney’s lesser classic films, it was also because it was another in a line of live action films that Disney seems bent on doing to more and more of its older animated movies, which had so far managed to miss with 2 out of the 3 most recent unnecessary cash-ins – Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent were absolutely painful. However, with the positive reviews coming in and the fact that I actually genuinely loved their most recent film, Cinderella (also based on what I believe to be a lesser classic), I did decide to spend an early Friday respite from the last fleeting bits of work I have left over the next few weeks by checking out the 3D matinee.
To say that Disney’s latest take on The Jungle Book is pretty much like the last one is inaccurate. They actually did this already back in 1994 with Stephen Somers at the helm and Jason Scott Lee playing a much older Mowgli for an arguably much older target audience. They even had a direct-to-video film adaptation subtitled Mowgli’s Story, in which Bill Murray’s brother, Brian Doyle-Murray, also played Baloo, though I can understand why nobody would choose to cite that version. That quibbling little nitpick aside, though, yes, this film really is basically a more amped up version of the film that everybody knows by now, songs included. There are a few key changes that do set the film apart, mostly in the way it personifies certain characters, but also with the tone of the film being a lot darker overall, and the ending has been changed in such a way that it’s undoubtedly a conscious decision made to set it apart from the undercurrent of white supremacy present in the original.*
Honestly, I have no qualms with the changes made. It’s my understanding that the Disney original already strayed so far from the source material, and it’s basically to be expected these days that a Jungle Book adaptation not be 100% faithful, let alone one made by the House of Mouse. The original film was much too low stakes for my tastes compared to Disney’s other films and particularly compared to what I would expect from such a potentially much higher stakes story. If anything, the darker and more adult presentation of the villains here – Kaa the snake, King Louie the ape, and of course Shere Kahn the tiger – makes for at least a much more emotionally satisfying and interesting film, as there’s now a palpable sense of menace and immediate danger to Mowgli and others living in the jungle. Even if they feel like they have less screentime, they make much more of an impression – particularly Kaa, whose creepier nature sent one kid out of the theatre in tears. Louie, whose immense size now totally matches his title of “king,” does feel as though he’s more of a stereotypical organized crime leader, yes, but as portrayed by Christopher Walken, there’s definitely much more of a sense that this is not someone to be monkeying around with. More importantly, Shere Khan, gets the best upgrades. No longer simply mentioned in passing only to show up later and dealing with an incompetent underling, he’s now on a campaign against man and is doing his best to ensure that the other animals of the jungle see things his way, too, despite Mowgli’s always having peacefully coexisted with them all. Idris Elba’s eloquent but seething portrayal, combined with the physicality and expressiveness in the nearly photorealistic animation also make for one memorable villain.
Much has been made about the effects in the film, of course, particularly in relation to its director, Jon Favreau, who, contrary to the narrative I have heard, has really made a name for himself when it comes to these special effects and visually fantastical films, starting well before he directed Iron Man with Zathura and, to a much lesser extent, Elf coming before it. Really, Made and Chef are pretty much the only small films he’s directed, so I don’t know why he’s associated with small indie filmmaking – at least as a director. As a result, I’m not exactly shocked that the filmmaker would tackle something quite as ambitious as this, where everything but its human lead was created digitally – to the point where it’s actually kind of disingenuous to call this a “live action” adaptation, since there’s probably a higher CGI-to-Live action ratio here than in any of the Star Wars prequels. It really is impressive work, however, and the fact that everyone but the one human actor is artificial helps to make everything a lot more cohesive. It really is astounding that the scenery looks so lush and authentic, it’s hard to believe it was all taking place on a soundstage in LA. The animals may still look like they’re computer models, but there’s a subtle heightened sense of fantasy about everything beyond their human-like facial expressions that makes it not nearly as distracting as it can be in other films that blend and blur the line between CGI and live action. The 3D was also impressive, emphasizing depth over in-your-face spectacle in most cases, though I still don’t know why theatres still don’t increase the brightness of the projection to compensate for the glasses’ dimming effects.
Of course, there are still a few sore spots in the film – newcomer Neel Sethi is likable as Mowgli, but he has awkward line delivery now and then, and you get a sense that he’s out of his element working against nothing – but most of that is largely due to the fact that the film is so beholden to the original film. It doesn’t feel as though it can be its own thing the way I remember the 1994 version was able to. The updates and alterations here and there are welcome without being pandering or preachy, yes, but this film’s potential for making the story its own is still all but ignored because it’s more concerned about hitting all the same moments instead. And so, while it’s fine when the indelible Bill Murray’s Baloo breaks out into singing carefree songs, it is completely in character. However, despite changes made to turn the character away from the swingin’ king of the jungle, Christopher Walken is still made to perform a musical number keyed into his unusual speech patterns and limited vocal range, which I found to be wince-inducing – though it seems there were some people who felt completely different on both counts.
Regardless, if Cinderella found the strength and courage to tell its story yet again sans musical numbers when they were so much more of an integral part of the movie, I don’t know why The Jungle Book couldn’t do the same or limit itself to the understandable indulgence of a “Bear Necessities” reference and stop at that. I guess we can all be thankful that they didn’t try to recreate the vultures’ musical number? Come to think of it, it might’ve been neat to finally hear the two surviving Beatles voice those guys as originally intended, perhaps supplementing with some other rock stars of the ‘60s and ‘70s, like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards or Roger Daltry and Pete Townsend or something.
Oh well, though. And, while I’m fairly certain I’m just not all that invested in Disney’s take on the story in this form, this movie really isn’t bad at all and, as mentioned before, offers up some significant and welcome updates and upgrades to the story that make it a lot more engaging. Audiences are obviously loving the film, as are most critics, so I’m apparently in the minority on being so meh about it. The film has a lot to offer up in terms of visual spectacle and excellent portrayals on the part of the animal voicecast and a serviceable enough one from its young lead that I can’t not recommend it, though I can certainly say that I would understand if you waited until the cheaper seats or even a home release rental rather than spend the big bucks at the theatre for something you’ve seen plenty of times before.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3.5 / 5
* Disclaimer: I have not read the original book myself, but the overwhelming reading of the book is that the film is about “the white man’s burden,” which just so happens to also be the title of one of Kipling’s own poems.