While The Jungle book is full of engaging aspects, the film is not the sum of its parts.
It’s a dark and visceral take on Mowgli’s struggle to find a place he can call home. But, any refreshing elements in the film are overshadowed by attempts to feed the audience the same old stuff.
The Jungle Book is stunning, visually. It drops the audience into a lush world, choked with vines, filled with ruins, and of course, swarming with animals. While the CGI does at times feel inauthentic, it’s only because of the dreamlike world that the animators managed to compose within each shot. The movie feels unreal, but that may have been what Favreau intended. The expressions of each animal looked natural enough that they never crossed the line into farce. I can’t imagine the hours it must have taken, but I appreciated that the animals on the screen weren’t simply avatars that matched up with the voiceover. They were characters complete with subtle mannerisms that helped to flesh out their personalities.
Unfortunately the actor that played Mowgli took me out of this surreal jungle several times with his distant performance. I realize he’s just a kid, but he’s a kid getting paid to do a job, and that job is to sell the audience on the idea that he’s in a jungle, not on a sound stage. At times a CGI animal would say something, or perform an action, and he’d respond in a removed manner, delivering the right line, with the wrong intonation. That said, he’s talented, and I’m sure he’d have done better if he had something other than a man in neon blue lycra to play off of.
The Jungle Book triumphed in its voice casting, but the characters were either unnecessary or underutilized. Kingsley’s Bagheera has all the pomp and circumstance of a British colonial soldier. Murray basically reprises his role from St Vincent, as Baloo, a wisecracking old confidence man bear that takes Mogli under his wing. And while I love the man in almost everything, he can’t sing worth shit. So, his performance of Bear Necessities leaves a lot to be desired, but it does play a function in the film.
Johanson’s Kaa is devilish and seductive, but she’s in the film for all of five minutes, and her song—easily the best performance—is only in the end credits. She basically only appears to fulfill the role of ‘exposition snake’; she tells Mowgli all about his past and where he came from. Walken also plays an ominous version of the well loved Orangutan, King Louis. But his voice is as dry as a cracker, and the song comes off like a drunken lounge singer doing a spoken word version of I Wanna Be Like You, right before the bartender gives last call.
To be honest, the film would have benefited from Walken’s role being cut entirely. Not because of the song, but because of the huge tonal difference between the scenes that proceed and follow said song. Let me set it up: Mowgli has a falling out with Balou and decides to climb a tree and pout. Then a bunch of monkeys steal away the boy and whisk him off to the temple where Louis resides. Only this Louis is not the cool cat that people may be accustomed to from the animated version.
He’s a gangster Orangutan that tries to extort Mowgli in order to get fire; the one thing he thinks separates him from man. He threatens the boy, and then serenades him in swing song. Also, soon after the song is finished he chases Mowgli through the temple like a pissed off King Kong. They escape and Louis is never seen or referred to again. His presence is unnecessary to the story—the main thing I happen to care about.
The Jungle Book would have been fine as a dark version of the classic tale with whimsical hints—what I assume Favreau intended. But, in Disney’s attempts to satiate the fans by shoehorning characters into the film that fans know and love, like Louis the King and Kaa, they disrupted the overall tone of the thing. The Irony is palpable, Murray sings about the Bare Necessities in a film chocked full of shit that doesn’t need to be there.
I left the theatre feeling entertained, but the moment I sat down to think about it, the veneer of effects and spectacle fell away leaving me with a bland opinion: It’s a movie, one that audiences will likely forget in a month. There’s no point spending money to see characters you love from another movie, especially when they serve no purpose. If nostalgia is the point, you might as well crack open The Jungle Book DVD—provided Disney hasn’t stowed it away in their bullshit vault—and give it another viewing. It’s sad that no prequel, sequel or remake can be an island unto itself, unaffected by it’s predecessor. Every single remake seems to sacrifice a functional story in the name fan service… and that’s just really sad.