Saturday, April 16, 2016
THE JUNGLE BOOK Mixes Spectacular Visuals With Serviceable Story
THE JUNGLE BOOK Review:
- Initially, I was skeptical of this latest live-action version of THE JUNGLE BOOK. Disney seems intent on turning all of its animated classics into live-action spectacles. But to what purpose? How many times must the same stories be re-told over and over again? Still, my skepticism was lessened when I saw the first trailers for this one. Perhaps a live-action Jungle Book was justified if it would look this amazing. Now that I've seen the movie, my verdict is that the movie is a mixed bag. From a purely visual perspective, this one is undeniably a stunner. The animals and the environs look amazing. But story-wise, to me this was pretty shrug-worthy - it's an at-times awkward mix of the animated original's whimsy and the darker Kipling source material. This is a movie that has full singing/dancing musical numbers, but also sure-to-terrorize-and-traumatize-kids moments of violence and brutality - often veering wildly from one extreme to the other in a matter of minutes. Ultimately, there is a numbing effect. The movie doesn't really seem to know what it is - other than a showcase for insanely realistic CGI.
There are, certainly, some interesting thematic ideas amid the spectacle. Director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Marks push heavily on the idea that young Mowgli has reached a crossroads, and must decide if he'll remain a creature of the jungle, or embrace his human-ness. Having been raised by wolves - along with the kindly panther Bagheera - after his father was killed, Mowgli has become an integrated part of the animal melting pot that is the jungle. He has, mostly, been indoctrinated into the ways of the wolves. But whenever he does display human traits - like making/utilizing tools - he is chided, his makeshift tools denounced as "tricks." Now, however, the sinister tiger Shere Khan has decided that Mowgli must be killed for the good of the jungle. Having been scarred by a man wielding fire, Khan is convinced it's only a matter of time before Mowgli becomes a danger to the jungle. And so, at Bagheera's urging, Mowgli flees his wolf pack in search of a nearby human village. The movie builds towards a pretty interesting climax, where Mowgli must decide once and for all if he'll stay in the jungle, or embrace his humanity - with all that that entails.
The problem is that the movie, mostly, feels like a series of self-contained tangents that distract and diverge from the main plot rather than add to it. Mowgli meets a mysterious snake Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and learns his origin story! Mowgli meets happy-go-lucky bear Baloo (who is voiced by Bill Murray) and helps him get some honey, and they sing a song (one of two in the movie)! Mowgli runs afoul of King Louie of the apes, who is voiced by Christopher Walken and sings a song (two of two in the movie)! Mowgli saves a baby elephant! In many ways, the film has the same sort of light and airless rhythm of a typical Disney animated movie - with the difference being that this movie seems to want to go darker and deeper, even as it keeps getting distracted with all sorts of seemingly-obligatory Disney-ness. But more than that, the movie rarely feels like it has much plot momentum. The structure is loose and freewheeling, which can make the movie - for all its stunning visuals and action - feel aimless and draggy at times.
The movie really does get creepy at certain moments - the Kaa sequence, for one is pretty intense. And some of the animal-on-animal fights are downright vicious - especially given how photo-realistic most of the movie's creatures are. But like I said, some of the movie's more extreme and intense tendencies create some real tonal dissonance with its lighter moments. Kid actor Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, seems more comfortable with the goofy and funny stuff. His wide-eyed, go-big performance feels less attuned to the movie's more serious sequences.
The other performances - namely, the voice-acted parts - are all quite good. If nothing else, the main animal characters in the movie have a ton of personality. In particular, Bill Murray makes Baloo an instant favorite (he basically is a real-life Baloo, after all), and Idris Elba makes Shere Khan into a fearsome and formidable antagonist. Christopher Walken also provides a comedic spark as the larger-than-life (personality-wise and size-wise) King Louie. But what really impresses is how the voice-acting combines with the amazingly-rendered CG to create a surprisingly immersive heightened reality. Going into the film, I was worried that seeing photo-realistic animals speaking English would be awkward to the point of taking me out of the film. But in practice, the movie's animators do a brilliant job of making the animals just heightened and just anthropomorphic enough to convey real, believable personalities - and to make us buy them as fully fleshed-out characters.
Favreau, for his part, really goes for broke. The movie's jungle world is amazingly-realized, and Favreau shows a cinematic sense of artistry here that I didn't know he had in him. Interestingly, where the movie shines most is in the quieter, more painterly scenes. The action, too, is often breathtaking - although more so for the eye-popping CG work on the animals and environments than for anything particularly awesome going on with the staging of the big set-pieces. Nothing really reaches Spielbergian levels of inventiveness. Still, give Favreau credit for crafting what is, overall, one of the most visually-impressive blockbusters in quite some time.
Ultimately though, THE JUNGLE BOOK just doesn't nail its big emotional beats like it should. There's too much here that feels like fluff and/or filler, and that means that the should-have-been-powerful ending instead feels sort of "meh." THE JUNGLE BOOK works well enough, but only its visuals are more than serviceable.
My Grade: B