When James Cameron’s Avatar came out in 2009, the only thing that people could talk about was just how impressive the visuals were. The film invented new technology to capture performances, utilize 3D, and create entire new worlds. It was really impressive and exciting and led to the film becoming the highest grossing movie ever. Not much was said about the rest of the film. The conversation around the writing, story, and characters was all secondary to the visuals, because that’s how the film treated them. The truth is Avatar wasn’t really that good of a movie under all those special effects. Seven years later out comes John Favreau’s The Jungle Book. A movie that, like Avatar is trying really hard to impress the world with its visuals. In this, it largely succeeds. But like Cameron before him, Favreau has made a movie that sure is pretty to look at, but doesn’t succeed at much beyond that.
The Jungle Book is a live action retelling of the classic Disney cartoon, which itself is based on the classic Rudyard Kipling book series. The phrase ‘live action’ is a bit of a misnomer here. The actor that plays our main character Mowgli, newcomer Neel Sethi, is certainly real, but everything else that we see in the movie is the result of computer graphics. The film was entirely shot inside a warehouse in Los Angeles with none of the crew actually stepping foot in a real jungle during production. Nevertheless, the animators at Disney took painstaking care to make everything from the plants, animals and backgrounds as photorealistic as possible.
And it has paid off in spades. The Jungle Book is gorgeous to look at. Director Jon Favreau frequently employs enormous wide shots, allowing the audience to fully take in the beauty that his animators have created. But it’s in the details that this movie works too. The subtle fur movements of the animals. How they run, move, and even sit down. How rain changes their look and drips off them. Even how Mowgli interacts with them. The result is a world that looks and feels real, even as animals open up their mouths and speak. Everything looks alive and lived in. It has texture and is tangible. If Avatar was the signpost of things to come back in 2009, than The Jungle Book is a measuring stick to show just how far we’ve come.
To go along with the realistic-looking visuals, Favreau made a choice to tell a more realistic story. And it’s here that I think The Jungle Book really falters. The movie isn’t sure exactly what kind of tone it wants to set. Is this a dark, dramatic tale of a boy, chased from his home trying to search for his true purpose, or is it a light hearted romp through the jungle, with a lovable cast of goofy characters? The Jungle Book wants to be both, and the tonal whiplash confuses the movie. Nowhere is this more present than with Mowgli’s interactions with Christopher Walken’s King Louie. The scene opens with Louie speaking ominously from the shadows in a moment that intentionally echoes Marlon Brando’s deranged performance in Apocalypse Now. Then suddenly Louie is out of the darkness, a giant Orangutan that weirdly looks similar to Walken belting out the goofy song “I Wanna Be Like You.” Look, this version of the song is great and Walken makes a perfect King Louie, but these two moments back to back just strain the tonal changes to their breaking point. It doesn’t help that immediately following this singing number is a giant, dramatic CGI battle between Baloo and a bunch of monkeys.
Neel Sethi’s turn as Mowgli is the weakest performance of the film. He pulls off the curious, adventurous boy pretty well, but his line readings range from not bad to truly awful. It’s tough to really blame the kid for that, however. The movie is asking him to do a lot. A first time child actor who’s forced to pretend that he’s talking to a giant bear in the middle of a jungle instead of a sitting on a soundstage next to a grown man in spandex. Even so, the weak performance hurts the film as some of the most dramatic, emotional beats don’t land quite as hard as they should. Sethi’s co-stars, however, all shine in their roles. From Ben Kingsley’s Bagheera to Idris Elba’s truly terrifying and deranged Shere Kahn, each actor has turned in their A game. It’s a testament to the film that both the performances and the photorealistic animation blend so seamlessly. None shine quite as bright as Bill Murray’s Baloo, however. It’s a tall order to live up to Phil Harris’ original classic performance, but Murray voices Baloo as if he was born to play the role, perfectly embodying the manipulative, lazy, but ultimately kindhearted bear. Some of the best moments of the film are the interactions between Baloo and Mowgli. Murray’s performance makes you, and all the children sitting around me in the theater laugh and smile.
And that’s the thing about The Jungle Book. When it’s playing to the strengths of it’s adapted story and leveraging the incredible visuals, this movie is really good; great, even. It’s when it tries to take those building blocks and create something else onto it that things start to fall apart. When the film tries to tell this overly dramatic, dark story that has Khan threatening to murder wolf babies, you start to wonder who exactly this movie is for. Maybe next time Favreau and Disney should listen to old Baloo and be happy with the just the bare necessities.
Note: I did not see The Jungle Book in 3D, but from everything I have read this is one of those rare films in which the 3D actually improves the experience. If you’re trying to decide which format to see it in, I’d suggest giving 3D a try.