I, like many others, was rather surprised by Disney’s decision to make the Jungle Book their animation-to-live-action release in 2016. Not simply because of the 1967 animation’s iconic status in the hallowed vaults of Disney’s back-catalogue, but because unlike its predecessor, Cinderella, the Jungle Book revolves almost entirely around animals.
The premise is perfect for animation, but converting that to live-action was a big call. Especially given the extremely heavy reliance the film would have on CGI, which always has the chance to descend into a Star Wars prequels or Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice style mess.
My concerns were not entirely assuaged by the appointment of Jon Favreau as director. While he has made some good films, I’m not sure many people would put his most CGI-heavy films of Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens amongst them.
News of the casting, and the release of the trailers, made me even more dubious. The voices in the cartoon are iconic especially combined with the various songs, which led me to believed the whole undertaking was almost doomed to failure irrespective of initial box office takings.
Well, if you don’t know the plot of the Jungle Book by now, there is something very, very wrong with you but, for those who don’t – the film follows Mowgli, a man-cub raised in the Jungle by wolves, and his journey to escape the clutches of the menacing Shere Khan by returning to mankind.
Visually, the film is stunning!
The jungle is a character in its own right, and the various elements of the jungle are given distinct atmospheres and visualisations that really help the audience to engage with what will be for many, an entirely alien surrounding.
The animals are also incredible. I know they are all CGI, but at almost no point during the film do they appear to be artificial. There might be the odd jump and land that seems a little too weightless, but all the animals are almost perfectly depicted on-screen. Weta Digital and the Moving Picture Company (MPC) have really excelled themselves in the Jungle Book. The interaction between Mowgli and the animals never appears anything other than entirely natural and it is a testament to their work, that the film itself works and never feels cartoony or overly saturated in CGI.
Unfortunately, the aural experience is somewhat less pleasing, or rather less universally pleasing. I was somewhat uncertain about much of the voice-casting prior to watching, and while some of the performances were surprisingly good, there were a couple that really let the film down badly.
Ben Kingsley is perfect as Bagheera, brining just enough stern yet caring warmth to the role. Lupita Nyong’o also excels as Raksha evoking motherly warmth to the character as well as an inner strength.
I was pleasantly surprised by Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, bringing a level of unnerving seduction that the character definitely needs, but which did not come across in the trailers. In the film, she is perfect, with the only issue being the lack of Kaa’s song in the film. Johansson did record a version of the song but it is reserved for the end credits.
Christopher Walken also exceeded my admittedly low expectations as King Louie (upgraded from an orangutan to a gigantopithecus due to the former not existing in India). His unusual cadence was less evident than I had feared, and he does a decent job of singing on of the two main songs in the film.
The biggest disappointments are from Idris Elba’s Shere Khan and Bill Murray’s Baloo. Part of the problem with Shere Khan is that, as ever, Idris Elba just sounds like Idris Elba. In a similar way to Gerard Butler, Elba does gruff man and gruff, shouty man incredibly well, but that does not make for a great Shere Khan. Even if we remove the suave sophistication of the animated Shere Khan from our expectations, I want Shere Khan to be menacing, brooding and imposing. Instead you are treated to gruff, shouty Elba Khan. The beauty of tigers is their ability to switch from subtle patience to violent explosive attack within seconds. The majesty of such a powerful animal that has a beauty and grace, yet can snuff out a life with a simple swipe of a giant, powerful paw. Unfortunately, in Elba, Shere Khan has been placed in the mouth of a man who is all loud, bombastic verboseness with none of the grace that the role needed. This tiger doesn’t so much stalk his prey as charge headlong screaming and shouting at it, and it left the role feeling a bit hollow.
Another of the major disappointments is Bill Murray’s Baloo. The voice and the character lacks weight and depth, and appears completely incongruous with the visual heft of the bear. Of course, Baloo has a much lighter, more playful character than his appearance may suggest, but Murray’s performances seemed a little distant, a little too soulless for the jovial bear who is to some extent, Bagheera’s antithesis. Murray’s rendition of the Bare Necessities (the other song in the film) is adequate, but leaves little overall impression, especially when compared to Walken’s ‘I wan’na be like you’ or Johansson’s ‘Trust in me’. He plays up the comedic elements, but even then is outshone by some stellar performances by the voices behind Mr Pangolin and Ikki the porcupine amongst others. It was an underwhelming performance at best, and I can’t help but think the role would’ve have been better going to someone with a voice that evokes more depth, like John Goodman.
I was also left somewhat disappointed by the lack of songs. They go a long way to making the 1967 animated version such an enjoyable film, and I felt something was missing each time we skip over the musical number despite the scenes setting-up the songs being present. But this disappointment is somewhat tempered by John Debney’s exquisite score. While the songs themselves maybe missing, Debney manages to capture all the heart and soul of the 1967 animation, and to some extent surpasses it, as the score interweaves with the on-screen developments with perfection. The musical accompaniment never distracts, but instead enhances every single scene with orchestral flourishes at all the right times, especially when invoking some of the well-known songs from the animation.
The performance of Neel Sethi is also exceptional as Mowgli. In a performance that is eerily similar to Jacob Tremblay’s in the Room, Sethi portrays the innocence, fear and strength of the man-cub in a way which is frankly disturbingly good for someone who is only 12. The film revolves around him and he embraces it with a physical and emotional performance that not only engrosses with the audience, but forces us to feel the same happiness, sadness and fear. Without wanting to be patronising, it is astounding that someone so young can be so engaging when some of the more experienced actors in the movie struggle.
Despite my initial fears, and in spite of some disappointing performances from Elba and Murray, this live-action Jungle Book actually works! Sethi’s central performance with some excellent support from Kingsley, Johansson, Nyong’o and Walken ensure that the film is emotionally engaging while the stunning visuals and effects from Weta and the MPC make it a joy to behold. Is it better than the 1967 animated film? No! Is it a very good film in its own right and worthy of watching? Most definitely!