Akela, Bagheera, Baloo, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, CGI, Christopher Walken, Cinema, Disney, Film, Film Review, Giancarlo Esposito, Idris Elba, Jon Favreau, Kaa, King Louie, Lupita Nyong'o, Movie Review, Mowgli, Neel Sethi, Raksha, Rudyard Kipling, Scarlett Johansson, Shere Khan, Walt Disney
“The Jungle Book” (1967) is a timeless classic; it’s one of Disney’s finest animated films and a generation of children have grown up with it. This 2016 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s work doesn’t quite live up to that standard, but it does an adequate job of capturing the heart of the story whilst divulging significantly in terms of tone and aesthetics. Whilst it may not be as memorable or as exceptional as the film which we all think about when we hear its three word title uttered, it does have a capable director at the helm (Jon Favreau), an impressive voice cast, and fantastic CGI. It’s a more than decent attempt at bringing a famous story to the big screen and I enjoyed my time watching it.
The story is very familiar if you’ve seen the 1967 film, with only a couple of variations. It follows Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young boy (man-cub) who has been raised by wolves. He was found alone in the jungle by the panther known as Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) when he was just an infant, and since then he has lived in harmony as part of Akela’s (Giancarlo Esposito) wolf pack. However, his way of life is challenged when Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a Bengal tiger with a hate of humans, discovers his presence amongst the pack. This then leads to a perilous journey across the jungle as Bagheera attempts to escort Mowgli back to his own people and away from the villainous Khan.
Things play out a lot like they do in the animated film, as Mowgli meets Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), a snake who may or may not want to have him for dinner; King Louie (Christopher Walken), a giant orangutan who wants to learn the ways of man, and in particular their control of ‘the red flower’ (fire); and Baloo (Bill Murray), a sloth bear who needs Mowgli’s help to collect honey to eat. It’s a tale of wonder and adventure, and although the stakes never feel particularly high due to the nature of the film and its target audience, it’s a lot of fun.
Possibly the best thing about the film was its casting, because in my opinion the actors chosen to voice each role were spot on. Idris Elba has a powerful voice which I felt suited Shere Khan perfectly, Bill Murray was great as the voice of Baloo and his comedic tendencies suited the nature of the character, and Ben Kingsley expertly portrayed the wisdom that Bagheera possesses.
The CGI complemented the voice performances brilliantly; all of the animals in the film looked as realistic as you could possibly expect, and their mannerisms were faultless. The only issue that I had with the CGI was that when action was taking place I found it difficult to tell exactly what was going on, because things would blur and the screen was a little too dark. This was mostly a lighting issue, because when bad things were happening the screen’s brightness matched the tone, meaning that it was pretty hard to make out exactly what was going on. Although this was definitely intentional, because it made Shere Khan’s presence more menacing and captured the fact that animals can’t use man’s fire to light their way, it was quite heavy-handed and hampered the experience at various points.
Despite the fact that I enjoyed this film and appreciated a lot of the decisions that were made, this issue isn’t the only one I have with it, and in fact there were quite a few aspects that I didn’t like.
Personally, I can’t help but feel that the tone of the film would’ve been served better if it wasn’t restricted by a PG rating. In my opinion, a film’s certification should suit the film, rather than the film suiting the certification, because this ensures that the vision behind the film is realised more accurately. There are various points at which Shere Khan is asserting his authority, and other points at which animals inevitably die, and it’s incredibly frustrating that these important moments are sugar-coated for younger members of the audience. It’s understandable, but it definitely weakens many scenes and gives the whole film a cheaper feel.
Still, this point isn’t meant as a damning criticism of the movie by any stretch of the imagination, because it’s an issue that’s completely unavoidable. You just can’t make a Disney film with a genuinely dark tone, because as a company they target a young audience and they have an image to maintain, something that would be impossible to do if the certification for the film was anything more than a 12A.
Another aspect of the film that I personally didn’t like was the narration, because whilst Ben Kingsley did a fine job of reading his lines, I didn’t feel as though his voice-over was a necessary addition to the film. The fact that the film starts with the book opening means that the narration feels like a natural extension of the way that the story is being told, rather than a device to explain crucial plot points, so it wasn’t massively detrimental to the film, but I still felt that it didn’t need to be included and it immediately destroyed my immersion in the film.
My biggest issue with this movie was by far the child actor who played Mowgli. His mannerisms were fine but his delivery was awful, and it was really apparent that he was just talking to himself in a studio. I know that a lot of people would give him a pass because he’s very young in real life and he had to carry a big-budget film on his shoulders, but that’s not something that I am willing to do. From my perspective, using this as an excuse is like saying ‘so-and-so is a bad actor, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that his acting is bad’. Being a child doesn’t mean that you can’t be a good actor, and the fact that a task is difficult shouldn’t mean that it can’t be done well, so for my money the fact that Neel Sethi is a child doesn’t excuse his poor performance.
Finally, I’d like to quickly explain why I think that a lot of critics who have reviewed this film have been slightly misleading as to why it’s worthy of your time. Many critics have praised the writing of this film because they feel that character motivations are fleshed out more carefully than they were in the original. A particular focus has been placed on Shere Khan (Elba), who many believe is a more believable and relatable character than he was in the 1967 version.
I just can’t accept this point, because in my opinion the entire opposite is the case. Khan’s motivation for hating humans in this film is explained through Kaa, who shows Mowgli his past as she attempts to eat him. The vision shows Mowgli and the audience that Khan was blinded in one eye because of man’s red flower, which occurred when he attacked and killed Mowgli’s father. From my perspective, this doesn’t explain why Shere Khan hates humans at all, because he was the cause of his own accident. He attacked Mowgli’s father without provocation and thus must’ve hated humans already, or at least have been an evil character prior to their meeting. The only thing that this flashback demonstrated was that Shere Khan had unknowingly spared Mowgli’s life in the past, but this can’t be the reason that he wants to kill Mowgli because in the flashback it’s clearly shown that Shere Khan was unaware of Mowgli’s presence! Therefore, Khan’s motivations are circular and the film actually does a terrible job of explaining them.
I also felt that Bagheera’s motivations were unclear, because although he is portrayed as a heroic character, this doesn’t really explain why he would help Mowgli when he was a baby given that he was basically a free dinner. Animals follow the law of the jungle, and from what I’m told in the books one of those laws is to not harm man, so it makes sense that Bagheera doesn’t harm the boy. However, at no point in the movie is this fact explained to the audience. When I watched the film I assumed that the law of the jungle wouldn’t state that harming man was a problem because man so often harms the animal kingdom, and it seemed as though the writers were appealing to a human sense of morality to explain Bagheera’s actions so that the audience could relate to him. Therefore, at least in my opinion, the writers did a disservice to the character by leaving out important information relating to his actions – information that was in fact crucial to the plot.
Although I do feel that this version of “The Jungle Book” has quite a few issues, I still think that it’s an accomplished take on Rudyard Kipling’s work. It isn’t spectacular, but the aspects of it which I perceive to be negative are all understandable to a reasonable degree. Furthermore, the casting, voice performances, and the CGI are great. It’s a pleasant watch, and although you won’t leave the theatre talking about a film of the year contender, I would suggest that you will probably enjoy the experience.