Alternately exciting and sluggish, Disney’s live action version of The Jungle Book, adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s adventure tales, ultimately succeeds as a matinee or home video adventure. Director Jon Favreau (Chef, Zathura, Cowboys & Aliens) has a knack for these types of daring movies and, with a few twists and reconfigurations of Walt Disney’s 1967 animated motion picture (read my movie and DVD review of the classic here), which this closely resembles with some modifications, The Jungle Book delivers generic entertainment.
Action scenes are too close up and jumbled. There’s a steadiness to the script by Justin Marks that lulls the audience into a kind of slumber and it sags between pulsating action sequences which pop up at expected intervals. Marks and Favreau make every plot point so predictable and safe that it depletes the wispy plot and characters of tension, depth and conflict.
Mowgli (a debut by Neel Sethi) is a gangly kid left to make his way in the Asian jungle—the backstory comes into play—and, like Tarzan, Bomba and other human males among wild animals in exotic locations, he bonds with animals and nature. Disney’s original picture spun this coming of age tale with music and humor and, amid modern demands for new forms of excitement, there’s much less of both which doesn’t help. Baloo the layabout bear is voiced by Bill Murray (Aloha, St. Vincent, Ghostbusters), who is fine, and Bagheera the paternal black panther is voiced by Ben Kingsley (The Walk, Schindler’s List), who is also sufficient. The same goes for Idris Elba (TV’s Lucifer and Thor) as the villainous tiger Shere Khan, Lupita Nyong’o (Star Wars, 12 Years a Slave) as the wolf and everyone else including the late Garry Shandling doing a voiceover, too.
No one, however, generates emotional power from the screenplay. Any moment or scene that comes close to achieving or earning an emotional response, such as when mother wolf must let the human boy leave the pack, falls flat or starts to swirl and then spins out with the next scene. This is through no fault of composer John Debney, whose score services the adventure movie even when it overwhelms what’s on screen. I think it’s partly caused by the Mowgli character, who is underplayed, the writing, which is underdeveloped, and Favreau’s direction, which is underdone. Finally, without animation, the computer generated setting is hyper-realistic which makes The Jungle Book visually arresting and thematically formulaic, contrasting stronger visuals with weaker characters, lines and themes.
For example, a cliched phrase about sticking together explicitly comes into Jungle Book about halfway through and is then put at the plot climax’s center, way out of proportion to its thin and poorly executed development, so the climax is less than credible or involving because it’s been more told than shown. Scarlett Johansson (Her) has a cameo as a snake and she unfortunately sings during the end credits which is almost as bad as Christopher Walken’s singing primate, who just about stops the movie’s plot momentum.
Despite the shortcomings, Mowgli’s interactions with elephants, trees and mentors, surrogate family and jungle inhabitants of all kinds is interesting and often thrilling, perhaps more so if you get a tickle from the animated version. Favreau almost always has a positive theme and The Jungle Book is no exception but it isn’t cohesively challenging and at times it’s barely interesting. Shere Khan’s relationship to the wolf pack, as provocatively depicted, parallels today’s Islamic terrorist threat—but it’s left dangling. Other promising points dissipate as well.
The 1967 version‘s loose, jaunty quality was tonic in the turbulent times of its release. In these more ominous times, remaking Kipling’s cautionary tales and layering them with tenderness, a sense of danger and an overarching theme of the outsider enshrouded with universal love is at once more realistic and more prosaic.
Available in 3D, I saw The Jungle Book without 3D glasses and I have no regrets.