The Jungle Book
Directed by Jon Favreau
Opens April 15
You have to hand it to Disney: They’ve figured out how to run a multi-tentacled corporate behemoth of a movie studio under the nefarious/excellent cover of giving people what they want. Disney makes Marvel Studios movies, Disney makes Star Wars, Disney makes cartoons under both their own banner and Pixar’s, and they generally do all of this very, very well. The Force Awakens, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Inside Out and Zootopia may be products from different Disney lines, but they’re also all a damn sight better than any number of other studios’ prestige pictures.
I think I’ve found the line, though, where immaculately crafted commerce seems less capable of sustaining an artist’s soul, and that is Disney’s other, other, other, other franchise: the thing where they take their old animated classics and remake them into “live action” spectacles. The scare quotes are there because The Jungle Book—that is, the 2016 version about to play in theaters nationwide—is LAINO (live-action in name only). It stars one small human in the role of Mowgli, the “man-cub” raised by a family of wolves in the jungle, who is pursued by the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), well aware of what fiery things man can do. Everything else beyond Mowgli, the celebrity animal voices and the occasional prop or costume is digital. The entirety of this beautifully designed and convincing jungle adventure movie was shot on a soundstage in Los Angeles, which is to say, The Jungle Book in its live-action form remains an animated movie. It’s just a different, more James Cameron type of animation.
It’s a hell of an achievement. Director Jon Favreau has worked in the big-budget realm before—he helped shore up one of Disney’s big investments by making the first two Iron Man movies—but rarely with images so painterly. The original Disney cartoon was Uncle Walt’s last feature, and one of his best, breaking out of fairy-tale parameters and featuring remarkably expressive character animation of its jungle denizens. Favreau’s version stirs in a little more of the original Kipling stories (perhaps most notably the “water truce” that allows all of the animals to drink from the same limited water supply during a draught—the effects of which are shown off in a gorgeous 3D time-lapse scene), but is built on cover-band version of several famous scenes from the earlier film. Amazingly, a lot of them come off great. When Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is hypnotized by the giant snake Kaa (the expertly redisembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson, bewitchingly creepy), the way the snake’s body circles around endlessly through the trees, entwining with countless branches has an immersive power, particularly in 3D. The scene even one-ups the original by staging a diorama-like flashback within Kaa’s eye.
In other words: close to the basic thrust of the original film, but bigger. That’s the modus operandi of the movie in general, and especially true of King Louie, originally a Louis Prima-voiced orangutan blown up to almost Kong size in this incarnation, and voiced by eccentric bad guy extraordinaire Christopher Walken. Walken’s delightful performance of the song “I Wanna Be Like You,” along with Bill Murray’s slightly Nick the Lounge Singer reading of “The Bare Necessities” (he plays Mowgli’s found buddy bear Baloo) are both welcome uses of small ditties in a movie that generally lusts for supersized recreation—though the filmmakers throw away their shot at hipster bigness by rejiggering “I Wanna Be Like You” in a way that denies the audience a Walken/Murray duet (Louie and Baloo sing a few bars together in the earlier film; it was right there in front of them!). Poor ScarJo sings Kaa’s old song, but only over the credits, after a “Wanna Be Like You” reprise (which still doesn’t include Murray!).
It’s not surprising that a big-budget adventure movie would eschew a song score, but the combination of change and lack of change highlights the odd relationship between Disney classics, the texts they’re based on, and these new adaptations. Almost all Disney animation before The Lion King has some kind of outside source, be it an oft-retold fairy tale or a specific book, and the reintroduction of some additional Kipling into this new Jungle Book makes sense in that context. But the new movie is really mostly the old movie re-animated, approaching its famous songs with a mixture of reverence and embarrassment (neither in-movie song is mounted as a real set piece, as if Favreau had to include them but wanted to get it all over with quickly). I guess a Disney apolo-purist could argue that the movie honorably avoids rehashing these classic songs, but it’s happy to rehash plenty of other stuff. The few other changes—some Kipling quoting, and a less bittersweet, more sequel-heavy ending—don’t add much heft to the material. In fact, they serve to make The Jungle Book ever so slightly more like a theme park ride.
Despite the hollowness, it’s easy to roll with the beauty of The Jungle Book 2016; it’s well-crafted entertainment, like the original. But it would have been even easier with a stronger man-cub at its center. Sethi seems like a spirited kid, but his Mowgli has no trace of the feral, and delivers most of his lines in the same exclamatory tone. Basically, the human at the center of all these lifelike cartoon animals is giving an old-fashioned, low-tech bad kid-actor performance. It’s the opposite of last year’s Cinderella, where actors brought a little charm and shading to their bland animated counterparts, but the chattering animal sidekicks seemed wholly pointless re-rendered in more realistic CG animation. Here the more realistic tigers, panthers, elephants, wolves, snakes, oh my, hold an uncanny fascination that doesn’t seem pointless, at least not as a technical exercise. As a real live movie, though, the new Jungle Book falls squarely under the heading of things that man does because it can.