A new direction for Disney in the last couple of years is to reimagine all of their popular and iconic animated classics as live action blockbuster films. So far we’ve seen the antagonist of Sleeping Beauty in her own film, Maleficent, and probably the most famous Disney princess, Cinderella, get this treatment, both proving to be sizeable box office hits. It’s only a matter of time before your favorite one gets this treatment and for me, aside from The Lion King, I was curious to see what the company would do with one of my favorites, The Jungle Book. It’s an incredibly ambitious project being that it really has to be an almost fully CGI production. How can they pull this one off?
I knew the film was heading in a smart direction when it was announced that director Jon Favreau would be taking on the highly anticipated project. For anyone who isn’t aware, Favreau is a filmmaker who is very hands-on with all the elements in his films, most notably the computer effects portion of the movie, which is very evident in the bonus features of films like Iron Man and Cowboys and Aliens; although I’m sure we’re all collectively trying to forget that last one. With a great material base and a man at the helm with the wherewithal to execute it well, the hype flag was flying high on The Jungle Book.
For those who don’t know what it’s all about, which would strike me as odd, The Jungle Book follows “man cub” Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi), an orphan raised in the jungle by wolves. Found as a toddler by a panther named Bagheera (voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley), he would be brought to the head of the wolf pack, Akeela (Giancarlo Esposito), and raised by Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). Bagheera would continue to mentor the child as he grows up, intent on him not becoming like the destructive species Mowgli comes from. Instead the black panther tries to root the young boy in the ways and laws of the jungle.
Things prove to be unsafe for Mowgli when the proclaimed “King of the Jungle” Shere Khan, a formidable and battle scarred tiger voiced excellently by the always fantastic Idris Elba, makes a pretty solid threat. At the gathering at the watering hole during the drought and subsequent “water truce” of the jungle, Shere Khan makes it known that when the agreement is lifted and the rains come back to the land, Mowgli must be handed to him to obviously be destroyed as man is forbidden in the animal kingdom. Bagheera immediately takes Mowgli on the run to get him back to the “man village”, along the way meeting some colorful characters.
When I initially saw trailers for this film I found myself not being completely sold on the film. The CGI looked great, but the voices behind it really lacked the energy of what we were seeing on the screen before us. As I said, Elba is great and Kingsley and the Bill Murray voiced Baloo work very well but nothing else was hitting for me. After seeing the film, I will say that this wasn’t really an issue at all but the films uneven tone between being pretty dark but at the same time trying to have the plucky fun of the 1967 cartoon leaves the film in an odd sort of limbo.
I understand Disney’s need to keep some of the most famous elements of The Jungle Book animated feature alive and well in this film. While it works well for a song like “Bare Necessities”, showing a time where Mowgli is trying to live a more relaxed life with his new friend Baloo, the King Louie song “I Want To Be Like You” almost grinds the film to a halt, being a fun song but the imagery on screen is anything but and the scene that follows it damages that whole tone irreparably. I think the smarter decision would have been to excise that song altogether.
Audiences should be educated going into this film that these darker pieces in the film will make it very hard for children under five to receive. It’s a bit scary in certain scenes and the plot thread of death is far more prevalent than it has ever been in these properties. I know that death has always been present in Disney animated films but this becomes all the more real for the little ones when these characters look photo realistic, thus becoming harder for a parent to brush off or worse, explain. This isn’t the fault of the filmmakers but more an issue with Disney’s marketing engine that is at its usual high peak for this one.
In this review it really sounds like I didn’t enjoy this film, which is very far from the truth. Jon Favreau created a visual spectacle that makes it almost a crime to blink and miss anything and the voice cast seems to relish each role they are given, including the late Garry Shandling in his final performance, adorably playing a porcupine. My only issue is that through all the hype that was given to this reimagining of this classic story, it didn’t rise above any of these films in the new Disney regime and was really just okay. That being said, The Jungle Book is your best bet in the wide releases this weekend and gets a three out of five from me.