The Jungle Book is the latest of Diseny’s live action remakes/reimaginings of their old animated properties, a trend I am predisposed to hate with a burning passion right from the get go. Coming of age as a cinephile in the 2000s meant I was awash in the tidal wave of terrible horror remakes (providing the inspiration for Remaketober), so I’m immediately suspicious of any and all remakes, never mind that a solid number of them just…aren’t very good.
Of those, I’m more likely to be generous towards reimaginings than straight ahead remakes. Malificent wasn’t a very good movie, but it least it was kind of unique and interesting, and a story apart from the movie it was basing itself on. What I’m trying to indicate is that The Jungle Book had an uphill climb to impress me before I even saw it.
The plot is very similar to the plot of the 1967 animated film, so if you’re familiar with that, not a lot of surprises. Needless to say, the movie opens with a small child named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) who, after his father was killed out in the jungle, was taken by a panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to live with a pack of wolves led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Luptia Nyong’o).
Anyway, he grows to be about 10 when his existence is finally brought to the attention of Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a tiger who lost his eye to a human years ago, and who decides that once a local truce has ended, he’s gonna kill Mowgli. So in order to protect him, Bagheera decides to return him to the local human village, bringing him on a long walking tour of the jungle and many of its inhabitants.
Right off the bat, in addition to having to work against being a remake (you could technically claim it’s a new adaptation of the original book, but for a variety of reasons that falls flat) this movie has to work around the talking animal problem. To put it simply, talking animals in live action always look kind of silly, and its very very hard to build a movie around them (which is one of the reasons I think the Narnia movies kind of trailed off into nothing).
This version of The Jungle Book‘s solution is a double edged sword. It winds up creating an Avatar esque virtual world, rendering everything from the talking animals, to the non-talking animals to the environment itself in elaborate CGI. This solution works up to a point, since without a point of reference, none of them can feel exceptionally fake. The downside is that Mowgli winds up feeling fake. Child actors are already hit and miss, but with a pure CGI environment and cast, Neel Sethi winds up wandering, clearly mugging at nothing turning Mowgli into the worst part of the movie and undercutting everything else as a result.
That’s a pretty major issue for a movie to overcome, but it’s not the only one. The decision to include some of the songs from the original 1967 movie is already an odd one, given the much more realistic style and tone of the movie, but only including two of them makes it even odder. Without other songs surrounding them, they’re really jarring and out of step with the rest of the movie, and only really serve to throw me out of the movie (although getting to hear Christopher Walken sing a nearly 50 year old Disney song almost makes up for it).
It’s other problems are comparatively minor, and pretty baked into the source material (although, I’m impressed they managed to get around the fact that Kipling was, in fact, SUPER racist). The film is paced pretty oddly, mostly just wandering from setpiece to setpiece, without much in the way of connective tissue, except the occasional check in on how Shere Khan is doing. It’s also got a pretty blunt script (maybe not as much by kids movie standards? I dunno, it feels like it), and seems to occasionally rely on relationships we haven’t seen much of for drama (especially in the beginning).
Which isn’t to say that it’s an entirely useless experience, just a heavily compromised one. The CGI is pervasive, but it does look really good, and the action is mostly well directed, even if it does get murky and hard to follow in the third act. And the voice acting and cast are top notch, with some great sound mixing. In fact, all the technical aspects of the film work pretty well.
By the end of The Jungle Book, I was really trying to like it. It has some beautiful visuals, and a couple of solid action beats, but it just wouldn’t let me. Every time I started to get sucked into the movie, they’d pull out one of the weird, out of nowhere musical numbers or Mowgli would draw attention to the fact that everything was fake and I got thrown out of it. Maybe if you have an easier time ignoring issues like that, you might have a better time with it, but I just couldn’t get into it. It’s not terrible, but it’s not exceptionally good either and I doubt I’ll still be thinking about it in a few months.
Elessar is a 26 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s not certain what part of the world is supposed to have both elephants and bears.
– good CGI
– mostly good action
– great voice cast
– has a bear in it
– Mowgli is pretty bad
– pacing is stop and start
– songs are very jarring and not well integrated into the plot
– not enough bears