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Film Review: The Jungle Book (2016)

The Jungle Book (2016; Directed by Jon Favreau)

The live-action/CGI remake of Disney’s 1967 animated sort-of-classic The Jungle Book was one of the quartet of films from the House of Mouse (Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, and Zootopia being the others) that grossed above or near a billion dollars at the worldwide box office in 2016, topping all other blockbusters (with a Star Wars movie still yet to be released before year’s end, the studio may make it five). Although Zootopia’s runaway success was a mild surprise, The Jungle Book’s megahit status frankly stands out as a bit of a puzzlement.

A nicely crafted all-ages entertainment with computer-generated talking animals ranging from the solidly-executed to the nearly-transcendent, director Jon Favreau’s movie has some strong, dynamic sequences but can also be distinctly torpid and dull. The performance of his Mowgli (Neel Sethi) ranges from naïfishly competent to inelastic and irritating, and with the exception of brief, stiff echoes of Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling’s duty-bound, well-ordered British imperialism being applied to the wild Indian jungle, the film is entirely devoid of the sort of rich subtext and thematic depth that has characterized many of the aforementioned studio efforts (Zootopia in particular).

Mowgli the man-cub is the original orphan boy raised by wolves, specifically she-wolf Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o), under the pack leadership of Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). In a kinetic opening chase through the jungle employing Steadicam shots, quick-cut editing, computer effects work, and John Debney’s score to create a compelling verve of motion, Mowgli can’t keep pace with the wolf pack or with his adoptive mentor, a wise black panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). It’s a metaphor for the primary theme of this Jungle Book: as Mowgli grows up, he does not fit in with the animals of the jungle, but likewise would not do well in the settlements of man. And as a boy in the jungle, he is always in danger.

The primary danger comes in the form of an imposing, scarred Bengal tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba). He lopes into the picture during a Water Truce, during which all animals suspend natural food-chain hostilities to drink in harmony from the same water hole. It’s the sort of device that exposes the inherent paradox of all talking animal stories: children love cute animals, but animals kill and eat each other to survive, which children wouldn’t love quite as much. But enough teleological digression, back to the tiger burning bright, in the forests of the night (Shere Khan first appears from out of the glare of a setting sun, perhaps a poetic reference): he’s nursing a simmering anger at the wolves for harbouring the man-cub despite the danger posed to all jungle denizens by man and his most destructive weapon, the Red Flower (ie. fire). He insists, for the safety of all, that Mowgli be given to him to dispose of as he will, and his will is for the man-cub’s death. The wolves and Bagheera decide on a compromised path, and the venerable panther agrees to lead Mowgli back to his human village. Whether Shere Khan will accept this half-measure solution, however, is not wholly considered.

Away from the secure predictability of the pack with their square truisms about strength in unity and togetherness (Kipling never could help his imperialist tendencies, though Favreau and his screenwriter Justin Marks mostly manage to), Mowgli evades Shere Khan, is separated from Bagheera, and survives a water buffalo stampede and a rainy season landslide. Now on his own, he proceeds through a series of episodic adventures, gaining allies, antagonists, and self-knowledge along the way. Mowgli is hypnotized by the seductive python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), whose eye becomes a Mirror of Galadriel into his own past (its reptilian socket becomes a torchlit cave in a neat, seamless transition). He falls into the company of Baloo, a laissez-faire sloth bear who uses the man-cub’s tool-making ingenuity to score major honey reserves and imparts a philosophy of good-natured, Falstaffian, lazy, simplistic pleasure along the way (Bill Murray voices the bear because of course he does). He’s abducted by monkeys and parleys in their simian enclave temple ruin with the Gigantopithecus ape-lord King Louie (Christopher Walken, delightfully odd because of course he is). And, ultimately, Mowgli must decide if preserving the life he knows in the jungle is worth endangering those of the animals that he loves.

The Jungle Book should be reasonably involving and it is, I suppose, but in fits and starts more than not. While the CGI never shows any cracks, it’s employed so thoroughly as to lend a sense of unreality to the proceedings; children’s fantasy or not, we have to believe it and we don’t always. For all the skill and expense plainly visible onscreen, it has a tendency to grow stale and allow boredom to sneak in. This is a very old-fashioned jungle adventure at its core, respecting its in-house source material above all and laying off the political resonances and topical themes that are ever-more prevalent in contemporary feature animation. This leads to a streamlined entertainment product that won’t offend any political sensibilities (even anti-imperialists inclined to skepticism of Kipling’s discursive settlement of the wilds of India won’t find much to chafe at here) but also feels slight upon arrival.

Any hint of heft comes via the rounded and sometimes even nuanced character work of the voice cast. Elba goes for stentorian menace as Shere Khan, choosing pitiless, zero-sum rationality over dangerously distinguished villainy (listen for the latter from Benedict Cumberbatch, who is voicing and motion-capturing the tiger in the Andy Serkis-directed Jungle Book due out in 2018). If we boo and hiss at his proposal of a violent remedy to the dangers presented by the man-cub, his point of view is at least intelligible: man poses a threat to all of the creatures of the jungle and maybe it’s safest to remove Mowgli from their midst. The tiger’s scenes of quiet malevolence – his entrance at the watering hole, his tense chat with Akela after Mowgli’s departure, his insidious indoctrination of Raksha’s cubs – go much further than his vicious out-and-out violence, especially during the climax. It doesn’t hurt his general case, either, that Sethi is cursory at best and annoying at worst as his opponent Mowgli; good child actors are now so common in contemporary film and television, it’s especially noticeable and disappointing (jarring, even) to be confronted with a mediocre one in such a central role in a picture.

Other voice actors are solid, too, if hardly working out of their comfort zones (in addition to Nyong’o, Kingsley, Murray, Esposito, and Johansson, the late Garry Shandling provides the voice of a nickering porcupine in a fittingly left-field final role). Walken is most successful at making a peculiarly potent impression in a supporting role. In a rare burst of cineaste sophistication, Favreau channels the first appearance of Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now for King Louie’s introduction (shrouded in shadow in the stone temple, rubbing his head ambivalently), but Walken simply skims past the temptation of homage or impersonation. His pitch to Mowgli is no less seductive than Kaa’s, but it’s couched in humour and casual appeals to common ground, as well as screwball song (“I Wanna Be Like You” is one of only two songs from the 1967 film to find their way into this one – three if you count Johansson cooing “Trust in Me” over the credits – with a “Bare Necessities” duet between Murray and Sethi a surefire inclusion as well). Given this, it’s mildly disappointing when the Bandar-log scene degenerates into another white-knuckle pursuit.

Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book could use more Walken-esque oddness and, frankly, less of Mowgli, finding his place in the animal world that is forever foreign to him. Perhaps my skepticism of this core theme of the film serves to explain why so much of the rest of it came across as featureless and unengaging. Mowgli is a boy who will one day be a man, and despite the mutual affection between himself and his animal friends, he doesn’t ultimately belong with them, and we don’t need an ominous tiger to tell us so, thus irrevocably poisoning the idea. Forsaking deeper thematic explorations requires Favreau’s film to embrace Mowgli’s man-cub identity for its own sake, rather than thinking through why it matters that he remain in the jungle and making that evident to the audience. For all of its attractive features, this might be the flaw that drags down The Jungle Book above all others.

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