“Trust In Me,” Says Jon Favreau, And We Do
By Johnny Pomatto
I am wildly opposed to the idea of Disney remaking, rebooting, and replacing their classic animated films with live action updates, and with remakes of “Beauty and the Beast,” “Dumbo,” “Peter Pan,” and “Pinocchio” all on the horizon, I’m not ready to change my stance. But I do have to commend director Jon Favreau for his efforts in reintroducing the story of THE JUNGLE BOOK to a modern audience without totally abandoning some of what made the original animated film special. Unlike previous Disney remakes, such as the dreadful and forgettable “Maleficent” and “Cinderella,” THE JUNGLE BOOK recognizes its roots, and while it attempts to add some of the darker realism of Rudyard Kipling’s original story, it knows when to reference the animated original, and even add a few of its iconic songs.
The visuals are nothing short of stunning. Favreau’s jungle is sometimes lush and often times barren and dry, but always seems bright and colorful, with never a moment that felt like I was looking at a green-screen creation. I’ve gotten pretty tired of the constant use of CGI creatures in photorealistic worlds. Even when done well, such as the bear in last year’s “The Revenant,” I’m still constantly aware that I’m watching a special effect and long for the days when a well-trained Bart the Bear could be filmed alongside movie stars willing to risk an on-set mauling for their art. While I won’t claim that all of the animals in THE JUNGLE BOOK look photorealistic, (the mouth movements during dialogue scenes occasionally took me out of it), I was able to accept this world within minutes because the screen is constantly populated with the animated animals, so there’s really never jarring moments that stick out.
The outside element in this animated forest is the film’s lone human Mowgli, played here by the capable child actor Neel Sethi. If Sethi’s cadence is occasionally a bit too modern, it’s largely forgivable, as most the film he seamlessly interacts with the animated creatures to great effect. The voice cast of said creatures is universally excellent. Bill Murray’s instantly recognizable voice is the perfect fit for Baloo the Bear, which he plays like a lazy, free spirit. It’s somewhat hard to tell if Murray is putting significantly more effort into this role than he did into recording the voice for “Garfield” a decade previously, but at the very least his material here is much better, and although he can’t match the iconography of the great Phil Harris, his rendition of “The Bare Necessities” is serviceable and will put a smile on your face. Ben Kingsley lends some nice gravitas to the role of Bagheera the Panther, and Christopher Walken is a wonderfully bizarre delight as the monstrously massive orangutan King Louie. But it is Idris Elba, as the ferocious Shere Khan the Tiger who steals the show. His is not merely a great vocal performance, but a truly great performance on its own merits. He has more depth as a villain than most humans that we’ve seen in recent action blockbusters, and if the sound of his voice alone won’t terrify you, then that combined with the movements and physicality of his tiger counterpart will. Shere Khan is the only animated creation in the film that I believed as a living, breathing creature 100% of the time.
I won’t say that THE JUNGLE BOOK is a perfect film. There were plenty of elements that bothered me. To get a petty one out of the way, Scarlett Johansson (so outstanding in a voice only performance in “Her,”) has nothing to work with in a brief appearance as Kaa the Snake. Kaa is so unforgettably fun and nasty in the animated film, and while I wouldn’t expect her to make me forget Sterling Holloway’s raspy voice from the original, she isn’t even given a chance in a scene that is over before it begins. One would think that Mowgli’s adventures of being hunted and transitioning from animal to man would be enough to sustain a character arc, but Justin Marks’ screenplay borrows a tired cliché, found in many films but especially those released by Disney, of Mowgli being asked to reject his individuality and conform to the jungle ways, only to use his unique ingenuity to ultimately save the day. This “just be yourself” moral seems out of place in this century’s old story and should have been reserved for the next several Pixar films instead.
Though the film ends with a spectacular fight between Mowgli and Shere Khan, the film lacks the cathartic and poignant ending of the original book and film, instead opting to leave things open for a sequel filled with more jungle adventures. The box office performance suggests that to be inevitable but I say it’s best to move on to something new. After all, this film and any future sequels will already have to compete with Andy Serkis’ long delayed plans for a motion-capture retelling of the story, which is promised to be a more faithful rendering of Kipling’s original tone and vision. It’s unclear whether the success of this Disney version will help boost interest in that film or kill the project once in for all, which I’d hate to see happen, but those first to the finish line are typically those most remembered, no matter how worthy the other version may ultimately be. I’m relieved that this film is as good as it is, and if as much care that went into this goes into future Disney remakes, we may have some more pleasant surprises still ahead of us. I remain staunchly opposed to remakes of films that remain timeless for any lover of film, young and old, but I urge future directors to at least take a few moments to consider what made these films great to begin with, rather than simply rush to discover how one can make “Pinocchio” relevant to the “Justin Bieber generation,” or else we all may start sprouting donkey ears and turn ourselves into jackasses.