With the amount of positive buzz swirling around Disney’s remake of “The Jungle Book”, I had every intention of seeing it upon release back in April. Four months later it finally happened. I’m glad it did – it really is a fine film – but I’m not as glad as I thought I’d be.
The jungle is the only home Mowgli (Neel Sethi) has ever known. Raised by wolves from a very young age, he lives his life as the wolves do. Despite his best efforts, and the efforts of his pack, it’s painfully clear that he doesn’t quite fit in. This is brought to a head when Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a vicious tiger with an axe to grind, decides it’s time for the boy to pay the price for his people’s transgressions. With the guidance of Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and Baloo (Bill Murray), Mowgli begins his journey back to his people.
In a movie like this it’s important for voice actors to blend into the character they’re voicing. I should be able to hear the voice and see only the character on the screen. The voice acting in this film is serviceable, with Murray’s Baloo and Christopher Walken’s menacing take on King Louie being the true standouts. And as far as Sethi’s Mowgli goes, he never quite grabbed me; while he certainly looked the part, I was constantly aware that he was acting.
My favorite parts of this movie were the fight scenes. When Bagheera and Shere Khan fight and the music swells it really is gripping stuff. Director John Favreau (Iron Man) has proven time and time again that he truly knows how to frame a fight scene. I also loved meeting King Louie for the first time…
…Until he breaks into song. It kills me that one of my favorite scenes from the film is also one of its worst moments. Everything about meeting King Louie, from the shadowy reveal to Walken’s delivery of every line – it’s perfection. Favreau builds this intimidating character to such a height and everything is clicking until suddenly King Louie’s face fills the frame, he sings “Oobee doo”, and every shred of intimidation I felt from this character is out the window.
Now I know the songs are classics and the original wouldn’t be the same without them, and I personally think the songs are great. But this isn’t a cartoon. They’ve spent a lot of time making sure we see gritty realism in every shot. This is “Real Life Jungle Book”, and it works for 90% of the film. I was even willing to let Baloo’s “Bear Necessities” slide because, however silly it was for me, it was appropriate for that point in the movie. Things were going well for the bear and the man-cub, they were happy; Singing is appropriate. But when King Louie does it, it pulled me out of that moment so hard that I nearly laughed out loud. How can you do so much fantastic work making us fear King Louie to just turn him into a silly cartoon? It baffles me.
So what’s the point? What is this film trying to say to us? I’m honestly not sure. The theme could be about how the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, or how mankind is destroying the environment with its never-ending expansion. It could be about how vengeance is self-defeating, or that family isn’t always about blood. The movie hints at all of these without truly grasping any of them.
When it’s all said and done “The Jungle Book” is a fine movie that does nearly everything as well as can be expected. I enjoyed it, but not nearly so much as my kids. But kids love everything, so who knows?
In the end “The Jungle Book” gets a 7/10.