The latest version of The Jungle Book owes a lot to Jon Favreau’s directorial experience in the Marvel superhero genre. The film is one elongated chase sequence, much more action than adventure, a sort of Apocalypto-meets-Homeward Bound for kids. As such, it’s difficult to tell who the intended audience is supposed to be. But with its record-breaking opening weekend, I’m sure my mixed review won’t affect its box office returns.
Based on Rudyard Kipling’s classic stories, The Jungle Book focuses on the man-cub Mowgli, an orphan raised by wolves and looked after by Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley). When ruthless tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) discovers a human living amongst the animals, he takes the animal kingdom hostage–either the wolves give up Mowgli to be killed, or Khan starts killing them off. Bagheera realizes Mowgli would be safest back at the humans’ village, which sparks a long journey back into the world of Mowgli’s origins. On his journey, Mowgli encounters all sorts of other animals–Kaa the snake (Scarlett Johannson), Baloo the Bear (Bill Murray), and King Louie (Christopher Walken), who is a gigantopithecus, an enormous now-extinct ape.
Newcomer Neel Sethi is charming enough as Mowgli, and certainly does a lot of the heavy lifting in the acting department. While the CGI animals are photorealistic and the world-building is impressive and lush, in the back of my mind I was always aware that this isn’t real. Sethi is talking to empty green stages and jumping off imaginary cliffs. Still, the intensity of the film *feels* real enough, as Mowgli is in constant peril from enormous jungle creatures attempting to take his life. There’s very little time for the leisurely good life of Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), what with all the running and jumping and chasing and surviving. As such, this film loses much of the whimsy and sweetness of the animated film (which has its grim moments), and becomes just another in the action-heavy Let’s Make It Darker! tone so many films have adopted recently. For instance, the origin story of Mowgli shows the battle between Shere Khan and Mowgli’s father, which results in Khan’s scars and Mowgli becoming an orphan. It’s akin to Bruce Banner’s parents’ death–he’s an orphan, yes, but do we really need another elaborate scene showing us the traumatic death of a parent? King Louie feels like a character right out of Apocalypse Now, hidden in shadows and set up as a god-like leader in a dilapidated jungle fortress. In fact, the only time I chuckled during the film was Mowgli’s discovery of a cowbell just before meeting King Louie, reminding me of Walken in this Saturday Night Live scene. I also found myself distracted by geography issues–for all the elaborate world-building, Mowgli’s journey makes little sense in terms of time and place. Jungle landscape which takes him days to navigate only takes him mere hours (or minutes?) in the final act. Songs like “The Bare Necessities” are supposed to be lighthearted reprieves from the action and danger, but Baloo comes across as tired and strained, as does much of Murray’s performance. This is less like “early SNL” Murray and more akin to his character in Lost in Translation (which reminds me: The Jungle Book reunites Murray and Johannson.)
Tired. That’s how I felt leaving the theater. For all the on-screen action, this version of The Jungle Book didn’t strike me as particularly fun. Lots of danger. Lots of death. A heavy dosage of The Big Important Message. What made elaborate CGI-laden chases like Mad Max: Fury Road so engaging was the world-building and story-telling, a madcap plunge into a thrilling new realm of wonder and peril. The Jungle Book is also full of action and the world-building is mostly remarkable, but none of it feels particularly new or original. It’s not a *bad* film, and certainly has its laudable elements, but its action-heavy pacing left me fatigued. Maybe I just need more coffee. Or hibernation. Where’s a goofy lighthearted bear when you need him?
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3040964/