Friday, April 15, 2016

The Jungle Book (2016)

** out of ****

Disney’s new “live action” version of The Jungle Book is another beautiful example of how far animation and effects artists have come with CGI creatures and environments. I’m still in awe of the ability to wield photorealistic imagery to any artist’s imaginative desire. Unfortunately, I’m gravely disappointed when all of this money, technology and effort are in the service of weak cinematic storytelling.

Disney is busy doing a lot of great things lately, but I’m not happy with their continued mission to remake their timeless animated classic films into quasi-live-action, quasi-musical, and quasi-entertaining special effects shows. In the case of the property of The Jungle Book, they already made a forgettable live-action version in the nineties, but this time, the production is much more ambitious.

This is where I have to explore the varied quality of Jon Favreau’s directorial career. Simple as it was, I found a lot of charm in his brief departure from mega-budget filmmaking two years ago with Chef. Most folks also seem to love watching Elf as a Christmastime classic and Iron Man was a wonderful launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. On the other hand, Iron Man 2 felt instantly stale, Cowboys & Aliens barely managed to pull off its daring genre combo, and now Favreau’s version of The Jungle Book is just… dull.

The story follows the orphaned boy, Mowgli, who was raised in an Indian jungle by wolves until it was decided that he must take a journey back to the world humans and grow up among his people, but he encounters dangerous animals and adventure along the way, which persuade him to stay in the jungle. 

The movie suffers from being tonally scatterbrained. The screenplay by Justin Marks (Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li) seems to depend on the vague arc of Mowgli finding courage, even though he doesn’t seem to lack any throughout the film. This version isn’t a musical, except when it decides to be one here and there. I was also reminded of Disney’s 2000 film, Dinosaur for sucking the majestic nature right out of its animal creations by giving some of them voices, which sound like contemporary comic personalities eager to talk about their first-world problems.

Quite often, the animation of the animals is so naturalistic, that the application of human voices seems as awkward as dubbing over footage of real animals. Admittedly, Ben Kingsley is a natural fit with Bagheera, the panther and Idris Elba works well as Sher Khan, the tiger. But then there’s Bill Murray’s Baloo, the bear, whose realistically limited facial expressions don’t fit the voice. This problem is even worse with various supporting animal characters, one of which is voiced by the late Garry Shandling.

While I haven’t read Rudyard Kipling’s original story collection, I’m willing to go out on a limb (or hang from a vine) and say that this movie doesn’t bring us any closer his vision. Favreau strangely pays more tribute to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now when Mowgli visits King Louie (Christopher Walken), the giant ape, dwelling in the shadows of ancient ruins like Colonel Kurtz.

I also hate to pick on a child’s performance, but Neel Sethi’s challenging task in playing Mowgli has rather emotionally limited results. Granted, the kid probably had to use his imagination really hard while taking part in an animated film in the disguise of a live action one, but he doesn’t bring a lot of range.

Favreau, in interviews, has always struck me as a passionate guy with great insights, but sometimes successful directors don't show much evidence that they put their heart into a project. His generic family movie direction, Marks’ weak screenwriting and Disney’s lavish production (and ineffectual references to the animated version they're remaking) all seem to be in some kind of unintentional conflict. 

This is made worse by an overbearing score by John Debney, which renders the movie’s dramatic rhythm monotonous. I can’t be certain if kids will enjoy this movie or not. There are engaging moments and a creatively hypnotic look to the film, but it didn’t have the emotional power of Life of Pi or the charming comedy of the recent Zootopia –even though the movie feels like a mutant crossbreed between the two films.

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