May 19, 2016 - 4:41pm
The recurring question in Disney’s The Jungle Book is whether Mowgli (Neel Sethi) belongs in a village with his fellow humans, or in the wild with the wolf (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) who adopted him.
The film itself has a similar identity crisis. Is it a musical or isn’t it? Is it aimed at children or adults? Is it a wacky live-action version of Disney’s classic 1967 cartoon, or is it a po-faced adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s stories from 1894 and 1895? Like Mowgli, Jon Favreau’s film can never quite decide.
One thing is clear, mind you, and that’s that The Jungle Book is a technical marvel. A 21st-Century update of the Mary Poppins sequence that puts flesh-and-blood actors into an animated setting, the film has an on-screen actor as Mowgli, but the animals and the lush landscapes around him are computer-generated – not that you’d know.
So convincing are the digital creations, with their thick fur, roiling muscles, glinting eyes and twitching ears, that you could easily imagine that Favreau had broken all sorts of child endangerment laws by throwing a 12-year-old boy into a studio with a pack of wild animals. Between The Jungle Book and The Revenant, it seems that if you want to see the photorealistic cutting-edge of digital imagery, then a bear has got to be involved.
‘A lot less fun’
The problems with The Jungle Book have to do with something more old-fashioned: the script, which meanders from episode to episode without ever picking up speed or accruing any of the thematic sophistication of Disney’s other current anthropomorphic animal extravaganza, Zootopia.
Favreau and his screenwriter, Justin Marks, have stuck to the structure of the cartoon, never mind that the cartoon doesn’t really have a structure: we meet a mop-topped boy in a red nappy who has been raised by wolves in an Indian jungle, and then he strolls towards civilisation with a stern panther named Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), making various four-legged friends along the way.
This ambling looseness is part of the cartoon’s laidback charm, of course. Thanks to the sunny mood generated by its toe-tapping songs and memorable characters, it hardly needed a watertight plot. But the new film is a lot less fun than the cartoon was. Mowgli is regularly streaked with blood, his surroundings are murky and sinister, and Shere Khan (Idris Elba) the tiger is a far more menacing antagonist. Determined to have Mowgli for breakfast, he growls that he’ll keep terrorising his lupine family until the boy returns from his trek with Bagheera. Miles away, Mowgli doesn’t realise that his wanderings are endangering his loved ones back home, but the viewer does, so his encounters seem less like harmless fun than a frustrating waste of time.
Some are particularly irrelevant. When he crosses paths with a herd of elephants and gets a hug from a giant python voiced by Scarlett Johansson, the animals look stunning, but their cameos don’t serve any purpose except to nod to the equivalent segments from 1967. More enjoyable is Mowgli’s skirmish with King Louie (Christopher Walken), a mountainous ape who is depicted as a cross between two Marlon Brando characters, Vito Corleone and Colonel Kurtz. And it is, inevitably, a delight to hear Bill Murray’s hepcat drawl coming from a conniving sloth bear, Baloo.
But not even these perfectly cast sections have much to do with Shere Khan and the threat to Mowgli’s wolf pack. Besides, as understandable as it is that Favreau should include the cartoon’s two best songs, The Bare Necessities and I Wan’na Be Like You, it would be over-generous to say that Murray and Walken actually sing them, as opposed to bellowing along enthusiastically to the music.
So what is the point of this spectacular but aimless nature ramble, apart from honouring Disney’s commitment to turning its cartoons into live-action films (Pete’s Dragon is next, then Beauty and the Beast)? As far as I can tell, it’s Favreau’s audition to direct a Star Wars instalment. There is a misty forest reminiscent of Yoda’s hideout in The Empire Strikes Back. There are woodcrafts inspired by the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. There are CGI giants and wittering sidekicks aplenty. Most Star Wars-y of all, there are scarred villains who chase our young hero around shadowy chambers while booming, “Use the red flower on me like your father did!” And, “We could rule the jungle together!” Essentially, Louie and Shere Khan are tempting Mowgli to come over to the Dark Side.
The other Star Wars-like facet, alas, is that Mowgli is almost as irritating as Anakin was in The Phantom Menace. It’s not the actor’s fault. It’s more that he has to say, “You’re kinda cute, I guess,” and “I’m done running from you,” with an all-American sickliness that isn’t derived from either the Kipling stories or the 1967 cartoon. There were times during The Jungle Book when I was rooting for the tiger.