Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is a curious oddity. Disney’s latest live-action reimagining is at once revolutionary and familiar, both groundbreaking and yet fairly mundane. Revamping Rudyard Kipling’s enduring 1984 collection of stories for the new age with immersive state-of-the-art, WETA-produced CG visual trickery, it’s a visual wonder, but one that lacks any real distinction from previous iterations of this tale —especially from the studio’s previous animated classic from 1967. It’s never less than impressive, but at the same time, it feels a little cold and — beyond displaying the company’s ever-growing technical achievements — it also seems a little pointless. But it’s still an invigorated, stunningly well-made and sporadically heartfelt adaptation. And in that sense, it covers the bare necessities of what it needs to do.
Born a human but raised by wolves, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a rarity in the jungle. Neither respected nor feared among the various creatures of the wilderness, he humbly lives his days guided through the loving, sympathetic support of his tribe, particularly his patient omega mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and their alpha leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). Adapting against his disadvantages, he’s trained by his wise caretaker panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to survive the unforgiving conditions of his surroundings. But Bagheera’s attentive eye isn’t enough to protect Mowgli from Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a menacing tiger set on revenge after Mowgli’s late father disfigured his face with the “red flower,” a.k.a fire.
Knowing full well what humans can do with this mysterious and unstoppable plantation, Khan sets out to kill Mowgli hoping to save his home from its inevitable doom. And while the other animals don’t understand him, they know in their hearts that Mowgli is no real threat and — well aware that Khan’s patience is limited — send Bagheera to take him away to the human village, where he’ll be safe once-and-for-all. But Khan tracks them soon enough in their travels, and after Mowgli narrowly escapes the tiger’s ever-watching wrath with Bagheera trailing behind, the impressionable young man-cub finds himself under the sage guidance of Baloo (Bill Murray), a lazy-at-heart, height-fearing grizzly bear that teaches him about the simpler pleasures of life, like honey, long naps, music and riding down the lazy river. But life isn’t quite as easy as Baloo would make it seem, and before he can learn the final chorus to “The Bare Necessities,” he winds up under the throne of a different leader, the gargantuan orangutan King Louie (Christopher Walken), who wants Mowgli to teach him the ways of the humans.
Filmed almost entirely on a small soundstage, all while never feeling less than approachable and lived-in its computer-generated backdrops, comparisons to James Cameron’s record-breaking Avatar are simply inevitable. Both are about as technically impressive as blockbusters come these days. But at the same time, the novelty of each quickly begins to wear out once your eyes officially settle into the visual wonder on it all. From there, the story needs to kick in to make this one truly stand out. And as visually stimulating as both can be, both suffer from fairly constricted narratives.
Sadly, there’s something uncomfortably generic and largely ho-hum about this Jungle Book, beyond its resounding special effects. It doesn’t feel vital or substantial, and Favreau doesn’t seem interested in crafting any new ideas into this timeless story. In fact, this new movie is perhaps a little too faithful to the original in-house take, with new renditions of “I Want to Be Like You” and the aforementioned “The Bare Necessities” coming across shoehorned-in, inorganic and a little awkward this time around. But at the same time, there’s something oddly enjoyable in how they’re performed here. Walken’s first variation of Louie’s diddy (he sings it again during an imaginative little end credits sequence) is almost unintentionally comical in how its sung as both endearing and a threat by the Oscar-winner. And no matter what, I can never truly complain about getting the chance to hear Murray Baloo’s signature tune — arguably my favorite Disney song ever by the way.
And Favreau’s work isn’t passionless by any means. As always, his action is pulsating and fluid, displaying his signature sense of craftsmanship and showmanship with every rousing scene. But it lacks his signature personality. There’s a distinct director-for-hire feel to his work this time around. Even his weaker efforts, namely Cowboys and Aliens, had more spunk in their step in comparison to this one. There’s just something cold and aloof about this one — almost as if it were generated by a system or, worse, a machine than a heart-driven filmmaker. I hope this isn’t a sign of what’s to come for him.
He’s such a thoughtful, energetic, passionate director that it would be a shame to see him not live up to his full potential if he were to go on cruise control for the Mouse House from here-on-out. Word has it Disney is already moving forward on a sequel, and, frankly, I’d rather see Favreau do something more substantial with his time and career. His last film, Chef, for all its problems, at least felt invigorated, and even the messy Iron Man 2 had some burning zest at its core. While his direction is as competent, poised and assured as ever, but there’s little pride in his storytelling this time around.
But that suggests The Jungle Book 2016 is a completely soulless effort, and it’s not. At least, not entirely. The message about self-acceptance, the power of loyalty and the value of family comes with enough earnestness and sincerity to sell, and that’s thanks mainly to the persistently charming cast. Murray, Walken, Elba and the late Gary Shandling, as the nebbish porcupine Ikki, are the stand-outs among the all-star voice ensemble, while Sethi brings a wide-eyed purity and innocence to the lead performance — even when his line delivery can be a little too stiff for its own good. But to his credit, considering the 13-year-old had to not only carry his first movie on his own shoulders but act among imaginary supporting characters and an endless sea of green screen, I think he deserves a little slack. He does a commendable, ardent job and brings a genuine aesthetic to the film that’s severely absent without him.
Following up Kenneth Branagh’s surprisingly sweeping live-action Cinderella remake from this time last year, Favreau’s The Jungle Book can definitely seem a little lacking. While not necessarily uninspired, it doesn’t seem tactile or fervent enough to really stick the landing. But at the same time, compared to cynically-produced ugliness known as Maleficent and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, it’s definitely a step-up for the studio. I’m not sure how long this new live-action subgenre of remaking/reimagining classic studio films will last, but they’re taking some steps in the right direction. I just hope they find a little more purpose next time. It’s hard to completely forget about your worries and your strafes when watching Favreau’s vision come to life, but there’s still enough spirit and awe here to make this wildlife tale come alive.