“The Jungle Book”
Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley
There are so many remakes and reboots of previously successful films and franchises coming out of Hollywood today that it is impossible to make them all good. Just one look at Fox’s troubles with the Fantastic Four or any of the last four Spiderman movies should make that abundantly clear. So when Disney announced a live action version of the 1967 animated classic “The Jungle Book,” there were plenty of reasons for filmgoers to be apprehensive.
Enter Jon Favreau. At one time known only as the guy who made “Swingers,” Favreau started to find his stride as a director with 2003’s “Elf” but has become best known for helping launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe with 2008’s “Iron Man.” And with “The Jungle Book,” Favreau shows he still has the Midas touch when it comes to fantasy.
The animated “Jungle Book” is not very good. Fun in spots, but not very good. It is a musical, but nobody remembers more than two of the songs. There is barely a storyline, and the film is less a coherent, beginning-to-end tale and more just a collection of musical vignettes. Favreau’s film takes the story, fleshes out a number of the characters involved, and ties everything together with a better, stronger narrative. There are still pieces that feel crammed in — King Louie is still a completely unnecessary character who adds nothing to the film no matter how hard Christopher Walken tries — but the film, as a whole, feels more complete and well-rounded.
The film is helped by the high-powered voice talent behind the computer-generated jungle animals, including Ben Kingsley as the panther “Bagheera,” Bill Murray voicing grizzly bear “Baloo,” and Idris Elba as the tiger “Shere Khan.” But the talent that makes the film work comes in the form of 10-year-old Neel Sethi, who plays the human child “Mowgli.”
Child actors are an extremely precarious point upon which to balance the fates of your film, because it is the rare child who has the maturity or level of nuance necessary to convey real emotion. And though Sethi still does not have the ability to covey the highest levels of emotions like anger or fear convincingly, he does an admirable job of taking the Mowgli character and turning him into something real and identifiable. He is so damn fun to watch climbing trees or floating down a river with Baloo that it makes the film’s digital characters more concrete and believable as well.
Not all of Favreau’s decisions work perfectly. Scarlett Johansson feels misplaced as the python “Kaa,” and the two songs that Favreau opted to keep — again, the only two everyone remembers — feel even more incongruous wedged into a film that is otherwise devoid of song. But none of this will, or should, keep viewers of any age from enjoying the film. Kids will love the story, adults who enjoyed the Disney classic will enjoy all of the homages that Favreau includes, and the action sequences will keep everyone riveted.
Since “The Jungle Book” is very much a film for kids, it should be mentioned that very young children might not enjoy some of the tense moments that the live action film features. The animals are all very realistic, and some of the action can get scary for small ones. But you know your kids better than I do, so just consider yourself advised. CV