Do we really need another live action version of a classic children’s story? No matter what you think, there are several in production, and “The Jungle Book” is the first. Director Jon Favreau knew this film would be a challenge when he accepted the job, and credit where it is due, he does a decent job of balancing expectations with technical merit. Instances where the live action and CGI elements are placed side by side aren’t always as clean as they should be, but “The Jungle Book” is still enjoyable.
The man-cub Mowgli flees the jungle after a threat from the tiger Shere Khan. Guided by Bagheera the panther and the bear Baloo, Mowgli embarks on a journey of self-discovery, though he also meets creatures who don’t have his best interests at heart. (Synopsis by Disney)
Favreau summed up his directorial approach for this film as, “You’re not remaking the real movie. You’re remaking the memory of the movie. Most people have contextualized the movie based on how old they were and what they remember now.” This is one of the more risky live-action adaptations simply because the fan base is far greater and more vocal about the retention of their memories. The film does a modest job of calling back to the story’s classic elements, specifically those from the Disney cartoon. The narrative is just as patchwork as it was in the cartoon version, but it never feels too disjointed to be distracting.
However, the inclusion of the animals singing the classic songs doesn’t quite work tonally. Even Favreau some had trepidations: “I felt that if I held back it would be disappointing, so you kind of lean into it. You’re in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation, and I tried to do the best version.” It is a good sentiment, but it doesn’t always make for good film-making decisions. The first song is a tease of “The Bare Necessities” hummed by Baloo. A few scenes later, a full version of the song is sung by both Baloo and Mowgli. Of the two, the first version works much better. It gives the audience what they want—a call-back to their cherished memories—without having to rely on CGI to make a bear look like it is realistically singing. Simply put, neither the CGI nor Bill Murray’s vocalizations are up for the task. Yet that song is far better than Walken’s musical foray as King Louie later in the film.
The major issue there is the use of mixed media, specifically CGI, next to live action. It works in short bursts or in certain contexts (the Marvel movies), but here the constant integration of CGI animals is at times more distracting than anything else. The CGI isn’t consistently good enough to mask the fact that these are fake creatures interacting with a real boy. This is a sporadic problem throughout the film, but it is especially egregious during the songs—no amount of money will make a bear’s mouth move to the words to “The Bare Necessities.” That being said, the central CGI set pieces are the high point, being both gorgeous and completely believable.
Even with the flaws in the CGI, the voice acting is well-cast and well-executed. Christopher Walkin’s King Louise is a little rough; he comes off closer to a bad mafia boss or Trump impression than perhaps was intended. The weak point in the cast is Neel Sethi as Mowgli. Don’t get me wrong here, I don’t want to tear down a young, first-time actor that is interacting with a green screen and competing against Hollywood heavyweights. While Sethi does a serviceable job, there are stumbles in which he reads lines like a theater actor rather than a film actor. Can he act? Sure, at points he does quite a good job. However, like the CGI animals, there are times where he struggles for realism and it distracts from the film. It’s a tough job for any actor, especially a young and inexperienced one. It’s the job of the director to prevent a “Phantom Menace” experience, more than the kid. By far this is less of a distraction than some of the CGI, but since Mowgli is carrying the majority of the film’s narrative, at points it becomes problematic.
This film could have crashed and burned hard. It was never going to be an easy movie to make, thanks to audience memories and technical requirements. To this end, it is fairly successful. It strikes the correct tone between being something kids and adults can equally enjoy without deviating too much from the Disney source material. Better yet, it gives hope that the upcoming remakes of “Pete’s Dragon” and “Beauty and the Beast” will at least be decent adaptations.
“See It/ Rent It/ Skip It”: See it. Even a bear “singing” off key can’t ruin this entirely.
TWO AND A HALF STARS out of four.
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Rated PG for some sequences of scary action and peril.
Runtime: 1 hour and 51 minutes