It’s awfully scary for a PG-rated Disney family film, and, frankly, it brings nothing new or of interest to the artistic table.
The press screening of the new version of The Jungle Book was held in 3-D in an IMAX auditorium. If you’ve ever seen a film in IMAX, you know that, before the movie begins, they show a demo reel/advertisement for the IMAX format—it’s all special effects and noise. As it turns out, that’s how The Jungle Book itself is—all special effects and noise. Is this a movie, or an ad for a format?
You’ll also note that I stopped short of calling this version of The Jungle Book “live action,” which would in most cases be an important descriptor here, given that the Jungle Book movie which people are most familiar with is the 1967 animated version, and both the 1967 one and this year’s are Disney releases. But in actuality, it’s unclear just how much of the new Jungle Book is live action. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is, but of course his English-speaking, photorealistic animal buddies aren’t. I mean, are the old Alice comedies live action? Is Who Framed Roger Rabbit?? Where are we drawing the line (no pun intended) these days?
And the more important question, do I, will you, or will anyone else care? It’s hard to say. I certainly didn’t. This version of The Jungle Book noticeably takes its cue from Life of Pi, another film I wasn’t crazy about, but at least that one had the good sense to take a magical-realist tone; The Jungle Book may as well be called The Uncanny Valley Book.
I’m operating under the assumption that I don’t have to tell you the plot here—it’s the same (more or less) as in the 1967 film, as well as in the Rudyard Kipling story upon which this material is based. This version shares the 1967 movie’s best songs. It’s little more than a live-action remake of that film, if indeed we want to call it live action at all.
You might be heartened by the voice cast, largely made up of very talented people, but the way they’re deployed raises some eyebrows. For example, Lupita Nyong’o voices Raksha, Mowgli’s wolf mother. That’s cool, but can someone explain to me why Nyong’o seems to only be getting voice acting roles (see also: The Force Awakens) since her breakthrough in 12 Years a Slave? She’s one of the most exciting and talented young actresses to have surfaced in the past decade, she (deservedly) won an Oscar for her first performance, she was named the Most Beautiful Woman by People Magazine in 2014, and yet we can only find small-ish voice roles in major Disney movies for her? What’s going on here? It’s hard to imagine this same fate having befallen Jennifer Lawrence after her breakthrough in Winter’s Bone.
Bill Murray’s good as Baloo, but the whole thing does have the unfortunate aftereffect of recalling his work in the two Garfield movies (which films were not too far off from this one when one thinks about it). Christopher Walken is fun as King Louie, though I prefer the parts where he doesn’t sing. And Idris Elba is effective as Shere Khan, but again, this is the second voice role in a row we’ve had him in (the last was in Zootopia, which is a better film than this one, and which might wind up competing with it in a way that Disney wasn’t expecting, given that it’s still going strong in theatres), and… he was People’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2013. What is going on here?
As for our only significant live action performance, well, let’s just say that young Sethi is no Sabu.
I imagine there will be an audience for The Jungle Book—the special effects are of interest, and of course, the film has a marketing juggernaut behind it in Disney. The totality of the film isn’t an utter waste—there are a few scenes I liked (most involving King Louie and/or Baloo), and John Debney’s score is consistently cool. This is faint praise, though, and I expect many more people will be upset with this one—it’s awfully scary for a PG-rated Disney family film, and, frankly, it brings nothing new or of interest to the artistic table. | Pete Timmermann