“The Jungle Book” is a film that’s the very definition of a conceptual failure. It tries far too hard to be a real crowd pleaser, adding a little bit of this and a little dash of that in a desperate attempt to have something for everyone. Viewers will quickly realize that the film can’t be everything for everybody, and sadly is not as splashy as its trailers suggest. Instead it’s just dull.
This latest Disney film is at once an intense adult drama and a kid-friendly flick with talking animals; it’s both savage and cheerful. This dramatic, constant shift in focus reeks of trying to be a ‘one size fits all’ adaptation of the story. The fluctuating tone is confusing: is this movie about scary, menacing animals or simply a joyous romp filled with silly songs? The forced musical numbers feel as if they were thrown into the mix to appease die-hard fans of the 1967 animated Disney original just when things start to get a little too dark, resulting in what becomes sort of a commercial break and interruption to the story.
It goes without saying that this movie is weird.
The film was predominantly crafted on computers at it shows. The jungle looks fake and the animals look fake; as a result the entire movie feels fake. Now I know live animals can’t be used to film a movie like this (and I’d never advocate the use of real animals, period), but the movie is more focused on being technical and mechanical instead of enchanting. The animated animals are lifelike to a point, but they speak in modern jargon to keep the youngsters interested. The movie wants its hyper-realistic animals to look and feel authentic yet they talk in slang and sing silly songs. The story is decent enough but the effects are too distracting (especially the minor background animals who don’t look or move like real animals). This mismatch doesn’t work, making the CGI animals more confusing than thrilling.
Adding to the less than enchanting feel of the movie is the mediocre voice talent. It’s fine but none of the voice actors give a particularly memorable nor endearing performance. These are pedigreed actors too, so I know they are capable of much better work. Ben Kingsley is bland and understated as regal black panther Bagheera, while Idris Elba seems to be phoning it in as villainous tiger Shere Khan. There are more disappointing turns from Lupita Nyong’o (Raksha), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa), Christopher Walken (King Louie), Giancarlo Esposito (Akela) and Garry Shandling (who adds zero comic relief as Ikki). Bill Murray as Baloo the bear is the best of the bunch, which isn’t saying much because who doesn’t love Baloo? And why can’t the monkeys or elephants talk?
Both Murray and Walken have strained musical numbers where they both are doing more shout-like riffing than actual singing. I love “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” (I was singing along in my head and tapping my feet to the beat), but the songs have been ruined by these poor excuses for musical ‘performances.’ Johansson actually has a decent singing voice but doesn’t get her own screen time for Kaa’s classic musical number (“Trust In Me” is instead slapped over the end credits).
I saved the worst element of the film for last because I hate to tear apart an acting performance by a little kid (and I don’t want this to come across as some sort of adult critic bullying a child actor), but Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is terribly annoying! His performance almost reaches the badness of Jake Lloyd as young Anakin Skywalker in “The Phantom Menace.” Sethi portrays Mowgli as an awkward, immensely irritating man-cub and a bit of a whiny brat! How has he, after a decade of being raised by wolves, survived in the jungle for so long? The kid pretty much sealed the deal in ruining the movie for me. That’s really the best casting Disney could do?
Too bad Shere Khan didn’t just eat him early in the story, it would’ve saved us all a lot of wasted time.
“The Jungle Book” is a bit of a mixed bag.
First, the good. I was quick to criticize the casting of Bill Murray as Baloo; as a fan of the original hand-drawn animated Disney movie, I always thought of Baloo as having a deep voice fitting of a bear and I wasn’t ready to accept anything but that. I have to admit, however, that he won me over — Murray’s take on Baloo (the ultimate lazy bear) is perfect and Baloo is just as lovable in this version as he was in the original. I also enjoyed Idris Elba’s Shere Khan — intimidating and scary with understandable motivations. The animation of some of the main characters, like Baloo and Bagheera, is also good and I had no problem accepting their inhabiting the same world as the human Mowgli.
Now the bad. First, as Mowgli, Neel Sethi ranges from terrible (shouting all of his lines like he’s playing the Easter bunny in the school play) to grating to merely passable. And before you tell me I’m being unfair because he’s a little kid, I ask you to first check out the performances of kids in other movies like “Demolition” and “Sing Street,” to name some recent movies, and “The Descendants,” “True Grit,” and “Let Me In” / “Let the Right One In” for some older ones, for examples of just how good child actors can be. Amazing that Disney and director Jon Favreau let the fortunes of their new franchise rest partially on the shoulders of this shouty, irritating kid.
And then let’s talk about how the other animals are animated. The smaller the character’s role in the film (and, in the case of the field mice and flying squirrels the smaller the characters), the worse they are animated. Seriously, some of those little creatures in particular looked terrible. It’s as though Disney spent all of its animation budget on the key players and went with bargain-basement effects for the others.
Finally, the story itself is a bit of a drag. While the original clocked in at a neat and tight 78 minutes, this bloated affair takes nearly 30 more minutes to tell the same story, and it shows. Demanding run times of nearly 2 hours must be a thing in Hollywood; it seems like they are de riguer for every big-budget movie that has been released in the past 5 years, regardless of whether the story merits it.
On the whole, “The Jungle Book” is forgettable. Although it has its good points, the film never gets good enough to deserve a recommendation.