Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley
Genre: Action/ Adventure
After spending his childhood living in the jungle under the care and protection of wolves, the man-cub Mowgli (Sethi) is forced to leave the Jungle after the threat of the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) to kill him. Under the guidance of panther Bagheera (Kingsley) and sloth bear Baloo (Murray), Mowgli embarks on both a journey across the jungle and of personal discovery.
Disney make no secret of the fact that they seem to think that using the advances in CGI to go back to their back catalogue to either give us expensive remakes or re-imaging of certain character’s backstories (which are also expensive) is a good use of their bulging pockets. These are often great stories that deserve to be re-made utilising the technology that we have these days and to bring to a new generation, but providing the still contain the heart and soul of the originals and do not just become impressively looking, but ultimately vacuous and hollow films.
Of all their films, The Jungle Book is certainly one that deserves an expensive upgrade and director Jon Favreau and his production team have created a film of impressive and deeply immersive visuals from start to finish, making The Jungle Book a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen. Praise of the set design in these cases should be limited in my view, as the budget and technology available these days should mean that is the very lowest expectation we should all have anyway.
However, it is the balance between stunning visuals and a narrative of genuine heart and soul that is where a film of this nature should be judged and on the whole The Jungle Book is a success that does work and justify itself. I of course cannot compare it to the book as I have not read it and would consider it unfair to compare this film to the 1967 animated film as that in itself was an adaptation (though Disney are happy to remind us of this film to market this new version), as I think it is fair to judge this film on its own terms.
As a whole, the story does work, but feels a little disjointed and episodic at times and Mowgli’s relationship with Baloo (which is supposed to be one of the key emotional elements of the narrative) does feel underdeveloped, rushed and ultimately forced. This is where the casting decisions emerge as questionable and potentially quite cynical; the concept of Bill Murray as Baloo in isolation may seem like a good idea, but despite Murray’s obvious talents it is actually one of the film’s weak points. For all of his iconic roles, the truth is that Bill Murray has limited range as an actor, and whenever Baloo speaks it just feels like Bill Murray being Bill Murray, making his character a distraction from the main story instead of an addition to it.
Likewise both Christopher Walken’s King Louie and Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa are completely forgettable and add nothing to the story, making their scenes feel like unnecessary filler. The animators attempts to put the facial features of the voice-over actors into the CGI creations is a great idea and certainly can be seen, but does not ultimately add anything. However the two most memorable characters are the two moggies of Shere Kahn and Bagherra (if the book explains why a panther is righteous and admirable while a tiger is a ruthless bastard someone please tell me). Ben Kingsley brings an appropriate level of stoicism and gravitas to Bagherra, making by far the most interesting character (again), while Idris Elba brings appropriate menace and intensity in his vocal performance as Shere Kahn.
As the only actual real character in the film, Neel Sethi is superb as Mowgli; acting with nothing but a screen behind you and props is difficult, and he does a great job and his performance adds integrity to Mowgli’s character arc. Meanwhile the wolves are very much at the disposal of the narrative, but the young cubs are incredibly cute. However for me the most memorable characters of the film are the elephants; their mythical, dialogue free depiction really does work and proves very important in terms of narrative developments, and is one of the elements Favreau and his team get spot-on.
As the narrative develops, certain developments do feel forced, but Favreau is also not frightened to push the film to the very limits of its PG rating with some darker moments that will certainly shock younger viewers. However, on the whole it is a film that takes very few narrative risks, and though a great cinematic experience, will probably be forgotten about in a few years’ time.
Disney’s latest expensive CGI-heavy rehash is one of their better ones, but certainly has its flaws; The Jungle Book is a visually stunning and immersive cinematic experience that deserves to be seen on the big screen, but some clunky storytelling and cynical casting decisions render it ultimately quite forgettable.