OP-ROB RATING: STARTER
“The Jungle Book” is a children’s adventure film directed by Jon Favreau. Personally, Favreau always brings to mind D-Bob, the loyal best friend he portrayed in the Notre Dame football gem “Rudy” which came out in 1993. However, in recent years Favreau has become one of the most touted directors in Hollywood, and deservedly so. He has directed“Elf”, “Iron Man”, “Iron Man 2”, “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Chef” as well as a few others. Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” is an adaption from both Rudyard Kipling’s book as well as the 1967 animated film that many people know so well. The main character in the film is Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a boy who has grown up in the jungle raised in a pack of wolves led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) who is strict, but just. Under the tutelage of both Akela and a black panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) Mowgli does his best to live as a wolf, learning their hunting tactics and their oath “The Law of the Jungle”. However, Mowgli is forced to leave the pack when he is threatened by a tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who holds a grudge against all humanity for an altercation that left him burnt and blinded in one eye. Bagheera volunteers to bring Mowgli to a nearby “man-village”, because that is where a “man-cub” belongs. On their way out, Shere Khan attempts to kill Mowgli and is thwarted, but the failed attack leaves the man-cub and Bagheera separated. On his journey, Mowgli meets various animals including a devious snake named Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), a Himalayan brown bear named Baloo (Bill Murray), and a power-hungry Gigantopithecus ape named King Louie (Christopher Walken).
The live action aspect of this remake is precisely what allows it to expand into a full-length feature film. The 1967 Disney original was mostly a series of songs and outrageous comedy sequences that ran for a mere 78 minutes. Favrea’s “Jungle Book” is a 105-minute adventure with a fully fleshed out story. For a PG rated kids movie Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” is also surprisingly gritty. The jungle is not a colorful fantasyland; in fact it is often harsh and unforgiving. In one scene Mowgli stands in a muddy ravine dodging a stampede of water buffaloes. All of the fighting sequences are brutal. The animals grapple and slash at each other. Shere Khan’s abrupt assassination of Akela involving a swift chomp to the neck must have shocked many of the youngsters sitting in the theater. Although most of the animals can talk, there is not much else that is tame about this jungle.
The best aspect of “The Jungle Book” is the voice cast. There is not a poor showing from any of the actors and actresses involved in bringing the animals to life. Both Kingsley and Elba bring their characters Bagheera and Shere Khan a level of elegance absent from the original film. Murray, as always, is absolutely charming in the role of Baloo. The scenes with the witty brown bear are the most fun to watch. Who would be better than Murray to portray the “fun uncle” mentor for Mowgli?
Despite powerful voices the live-action aspect of the film works against itself in the expressions of the animals. There is one particular scene in which Shere Khan speaks with Akela regarding Mowgli’s departure. Akela stands upright looking into the distance while Shere Khan lounges on a rock below him. They do not make eye contact and speak with one another in a serious tone. Yet, if you were to mute the scene it could easily be mistaken as a live shot of animal planet or a scene at a zoo. These animals can talk but their faces often say nothing. Perhaps more attention could have been paid to the eyes and the mouths of the animals during production, because this is an area in which the original film excelled.
Another deficiency in “The Jungle Book” is the blatant shifts in tone throughout the movie. Although Favreau’s realistic approach is enthralling and original, it conflicts with the lighthearted aspects of the 1967 film that he incorporates. One scene will be light and happy, and the next will be dark and intense. The “I Wan'na Be like You” scene with King Louie is the best example of this strange dynamic. Having been kidnapped by monkeys and confronted King Louie, Mowgli is in a very real and very scary situation. Christopher Walken is as creepy as ever voicing the massive ape. However, when Louie breaks into song the scene is drained of all suspense. Paying homage to the original is undoubtedly important, yet Favreau’s new take on the story and the colorful musicality of the first film often do not mix.
The standout weak link of “The Jungle Book” is Neel Sethi’s performance. Mowgli is an innately likeable character and somehow Sethi manages to make him annoying. Perhaps it is a lack of poise in his voice compared to the likes of Kingsley, Murray, Elba, and Johansson. No matter the situation Sethi always seems to be yelling, speaking out of exasperation. A scene in which this occurs is when he and Bagheera are walking toward the man-village in the beginning of the movie. Mowgli pleads to Bagheera not by genuinely having a discussion but by complaining like a spoiled brat. His reaction to the news of Akela’s murder is equally poor in its delivery, “You knew, you both knew!” he screams at Bagheera and Baloo. Sethi reminded me a lot of Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”, everything he says is a kind of over dramatization. “The Jungle Book” features a single human; a solid performance from this individual is a simple bare necessity.
Overall “The Jungle Book” is too good in certain areas to condemn for its inconsistencies. In time, the movie will prove durable amongst the younger crowd. Perhaps one day kids will remember this “Jungle Book” like so many other adults remember the animated version.
OP-ROB NOTE: There is a great reference in the form of a cowbell. Keep an eye out for it.