Sunday, May 8, 2016

'The Jungle Book' review

My experience with the original film adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book is pretty limited. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I begged my mom to buy Disney's special edition of the movie, probably because I had seen an ad for it somewhere. And I remember being immensely let down by the film. The songs were fine and all, but the movie itself was just kinda flat and dull. I never watched it again, which is saying something coming from a kid who re-watched movies obsessively. The Screen Junkies honest trailer sums it up pretty well- despite what you might remember, The Jungle Book is nowhere near Disney's best. The mediocrity of the 1967 film provides the perfect opportunity for director Jon Favreau to put his own spin on the classic material, and create the definitive take on Kipling's story.

In many ways, Favreau succeeds in this task. His hyper-realistic update on The Jungle Book is visually marvelous, filled with compelling characters, and an often engrossing narrative. With such an immersive universe, improved by the stellar use of IMAX 3D, it's easy to see why audiences are getting so caught up in this film. And yet, I walked away disappointed. The Jungle Book is a good film, but it doesn't click together in the right way. All of these great elements float around in a movie that occasionally moves with a sense of dramatic intensity and momentum, while also simultaneously wandering for long stretches. Favreau locks down so many aspects of the production, but the movie is unable to shape into a cohesive whole. On almost every level, The Jungle Book is well made, and yet, it never feels complete. 

The basic story is pretty much the same, although its admittedly much darker this time around. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a man cub, abandoned by his parents and left to be raised by wolves in the jungle. Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o) raises Mowgli as her own, and with the help of the watchful Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), Mowgli grows to find a place in this strange environment. However, not everyone is so welcoming. Shere Khan (Idris Elba), the fearsome tiger at the head of the food chain, is strictly against the presence of men in the kingdom. With that in mind, he becomes determined to chase Mowgli out. Hunted by Shere Khan, the boy embarks on his journey across the jungle, meeting a wide range of friends and foes, including iconic characters like Baloo (Bill Murray), Kaa (Scarlett Johannson), and King Louie (Christopher Walken).

From the release of the first trailer, it was abundantly clear that The Jungle Book was going to be a much more serious and grim take on the story. Even then, I can only imagine that some parents will be really surprised by just how violent this movie gets. The concept itself is pretty intense, which is only escalated by the realism of Favreau's vision. The showdowns between Shere Khan and Baloo are vicious, and with a finale that nearly burns down the entire jungle, there's no question that this isn't the happy-go-lucky Jungle Book of your childhood. There are both emotional and life-and-death stakes in this movie, and even if you're prepared for a gloomier vision, I think many viewers will still be surprised by just how dark it gets. 

But at the same time, this is a movie that goes out of its way to include two musical numbers. Look, I know that "Bear Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You" are iconic, beloved songs, but in this vision of The Jungle Book, they absolutely did not fit. Especially the latter- Mowgli and Baloo's performance of "Bear Necessities" sorta fits into the vision of the movie, but when King Louie breaks out in song, I immediately scratched my head. It's a scene that feels goofy and out of place, and it really removed me from the tone of what Favreau had put together. This is where one of my biggest problems with The Jungle Book comes into play. It works as its own film, but in many ways, it also feels hindered by the source material.

On top of the fact that those scenes don't really fit into the tone of the movie, they also contribute to the meandering nature of much of the film. The Jungle Book definitely has a story (probably more so than the cartoon version), but it can't help but get distracted by little moments that feel disconnected from the story at hand. There's a lengthy scene where Mowgli helps Baloo get honey that sticks out in my mind. From a character perspective, it makes sense, but in the context of the story, it's far too lengthy. In addition, the scenes with King Louie feel superfluous, and Kaa's single appearance only exists to set up a couple of things. I know that an adventure story like this will be a bit rambling in nature, but The Jungle Book felt flat-out unfocused at times. 

Without a doubt, this is an incredibly flawed and messy film. And yet, despite that, there is much to love here. Favreau is a strong filmmaker from a character perspective and that continues with his remake of The Jungle Book. The characters are voiced to perfection, with Favreau's direction and Justin Marks' screenplay working wonders from a development perspective. Neel Sethi has some slightly wooden delivery as Mowgli, but as child performances go, it's not bad. The voice cast is consistently terrific, led by the warm, funny performances of Ben Kingsley and Bill Murray. But without question, the star of the show is Idris Elba as Shere Khan. Elba proves here that he can do just about anything- Shere Khan is terrifying and ruthless, a complex and fascinating screen creation.

These characters and performances are only helped by the fact that this is simply one of the most incredible-looking movies in recent memory. I may not have loved The Jungle Book like many critics did, but there's no doubt that it deserves to be mentioned alongside Avatar, Life of Pi, and the other visual achievements of our age. The screen practically drips with lush, vivid detail, and the sweaty, colorful atmosphere of the jungle pulses through the screen. The characters move and talk with a stunning clarity and realism, making the relationships even more engaging. Watching The Jungle Book feels like a peek into the future of movie-making, which is both exciting and terrifying. 

If The Jungle Book doesn't sweep the technical Oscars come next February, I'll be pretty stunned. This is a terrific audio/visual experience that will continue to amaze audiences for many years. But from a storytelling perspective, The Jungle Book is a movie that is lacking. Even at 106 minutes, it feels slight and insufficient, and I walked away wanting more of a story that just wasn't there. Bolstered by spectacular effects, great voicework, and a mythic vibe, but thwarted by some tonal clashes and an often scattered and roaming plot, The Jungle Book is a movie that just doesn't entirely work. I was hoping that it would come together, but I was left unsatisfied. 

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.8/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Guardian, Telegraph, Screen Rant, Joblo

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