D: Jon Favreau. DP: Bill Pope. W: John Marks. Starring: Neel Sethi. Voice talents of: Idris Elba/Ben Kingsley/Bill Murray/Scarlett Johansson/Giancarlo Esposito/Lupita Nyong’o/Christopher Walken. (Based on Rudyard Kipling’s novel)
It is simply hard to forget the 1967 Disney animated version of The Jungle Book. ‘The Bare Necessities’ tune has become synonymous with our favorite lackadaisical bear Baloo who helps shepherd man cub Mowgli through the forest. Phil Harris who voiced Baloo would go on to work with Disney on The Aristocats (1970) and Robin Hood (1973). His jovial bellow was only matched by George Saunders’ velvety Shere Khan. When I saw his Oscar winning performance in All About Eve (1950) all I kept thinking was, he’s the tiger. Safe to say much of my generation grew up on Disney animation, even films as old as this one.
This live adaptation of The Jungle Book also follows a forgettable 1994 live action with Mowgli as an adult man, which was released by Buena Vista Pictures. Taking on the mantle is director Jon Favreau (Chef, Cowboys & Aliens, Iron Man 2) who tends to produce and direct on a large scale. Executive producing for Marvel, Favreau also continues to act and dip his fingers in many pools. In his version he blends Kipling’s novel and the animated feature with film influences that give the The Jungle Book a fantastic look if nothing else.
Mowgli (played by newcomer Neel Sethi) finds himself once again rescued by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and adopted by the jungle’s wolf pack. With the rains gone the jungle animals create a peace treaty that allows them to all co-habit a certain watering hole without threat. However, this cannot last for long with the return of Shere Khan (Idris Elba) whose hatred of man threatens the pack and forces Mowgli to be chaperoned by Bagheera to the man village. Thus begins Mowgli’s journey to find his new home and meet new friends along the way.
Regrettably Sethi is not much to watch. He lacks charm and wonder, instead his Mowgli is petulant without tenderness which does not allow you to invest in the emotions of such a familiar tale. Kingsley’s Bagheera is rightfully regal, but is not a voice to match Elba’s Shere Khan. The tiger’s mangled appearance gives him a ruthlessness that is new. Along the road movie timeline Mowgli also meets famous Baloo voiced by Bill Murray. The pair’s friendship gets the most laughs and eventually the shtick of Murray wears away to create a palpable connection between the two. The ‘Bare Necessities’ tune comes up organically, unlike King Louie’s (Christopher Walken) song ‘I Wanna Be Like You.’ Much too much like a musical number, the segment seems part of a different movie and merely acts as a gimmick to get Walken’s signature delivery set to music.
Like the animated feature Favreau uses Disney’s traditional image of an open and closing book to illustrate the story book quality of the film. The ending credits are gorgeous as the book opens to 3D pop-ups of certain scenes. Cinematographer Bill Pope creates a mystical and lush jungle and The Jungle Book at least moves at a good pace. Even with certain changes like making the snake Kaa into a female character, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, I do not that think the film brings anything staggeringly new or different to the tale. Disney and Favreau were perhaps too conflicted in wanting to include the musical songs while also lending a more realistic sheen to the sort material. Details like the fact that the monkeys seem to have no language when they are the closest animal to man get lost in the action sequences that create the beats of the film. Better than the literal Cinderella, the movie cannot compete with its original.
After seeing this version I am intrigued and excited for The Imaginarium’s (Andy Serkis’ motion capture company) take on the Kipling classic that will not release until October 2018. With another all star cast that includes Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Naomie Harris and Andy Serkis, the film is being released by Warner Bros. Serkis has already claimed in interviews it will be darker than this version. Even with the Disney owned songs safe to say this The Jungle Book is certainly not light so we shall see where how far this one takes us into the shadows.