Review: The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book (2016)

It wants to be like you, even if it’s missing a few bare necessities. 

The Jungle Book (2016) posterAs Disney continues its quest to remake all of its animated fare into live action – following the massive success of Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, Cinderella and a string of planned films like Beauty and the Beast and Pete’s Dragon – it also keeps upping the ante when it comes to the sheer scale of their pictures as well. Case in point is THE JUNGLE BOOK, director Jon Favreau’s live action version of the Rudyard Kipling classic, which is not even Disney’s first bite at putting these characters to screen with live actors. Taking most of the same story beats that made up their 1967 animated classic, with orphaned ‘man cub’ Mowgli (Neel Sethi) raised by wolves, but the thirst for vengeance of tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) forces him out of the protection of wolf Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). On the run, he hooks up with the slothful bear Baloo (the perfect Bill Murray), who teaches him to enjoy the bare necessities of life.

Reaching for the drama (and much of the structure) of The Lion King, this might have served THE JUNGLE BOOK well as a standalone film. The beautifully rendered animal animation is so convincing that Walt himself would be proud, so much so that we almost forget there was any human intervention in this production at all, with brutal animal fights that will undoubtedly scare the little ones (and some big kids too). Yet THE JUNGLE BOOK is still a little hamstrung by its own Disney legacy, drawing many tonal points of difference to the earlier animated version, but still feeling the need to force two of its biggest musical hits in out of the blue, although few could now imagine a Disney version of Kipling’s classic without “The Bare Necessities.”  King Louie is particularly problematic: impeccably voiced by Christopher Walken, he’s nevertheless a ridiculously scaled Kong-like creature, adding a sinister and violent tone to a scene that is otherwise built around the musical number “I Wan’na Be Like You.” Yet what lets the film down the most is young Sethi’s inexperience, his debut performance seeing him thrown in at the deep end of CGI, where all he seems to be able to do is hit his marks and recite his lines. With a vocal cast that is so strong, Scarlett Johansson’s monotone Kaa the snake notwithstanding, it’s an odd misstep for a studio with such a great history of child performers. As such, THE JUNGLE BOOK isn’t always a successful production, but it is still an ambitious one, perhaps setting the tone for future redux films from the House of Mouse.

2016 | US | Dir: Jon Favreau | Writers: Justin Marks | Cast: Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Wyong’o  Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Neel Sethi | Distributor: Disney | Running time: 105 minutes | Rating:★★★½ (7/10)