“Mixed Results” is a polite way to describe the outcome of Disney’s ongoing experiment in self-cannibalization.
Varying wildly in both quality and commercial success, the live-action adaptations of its classic animated properties seem to be attempting a Goldilocks-esque quest to find a “just right” balance of modernization and faithfulness. Some have played their adaptation scene-for-scene straightforward (Cinderella), some have inverted storylines to focus on a popular character (Maleficent), some have just taken the source’s name and basic concepts in yet another failed attempt at a family action franchise (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice).
Probably the worst of this mish-mash is Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, which was financially successful but almost universally panned. The film is unmistakably Burton’s style, but holds all the earmarks of a by-committee production, including a horribly-forced Johnny Depp break-dance sequence. There seems to be an internal struggle between presenting filmmakers with either too much creative control or not enough. (Not that having someone constantly reining in Tim Burton is a bad thing.) After Jon Favreau’s famously bad experiences with Iron Man 2, it’s curious that he agreed to work with a franchise-driven corporate committee again. It’s even more curious that it resulted in a good movie.
The first place The Jungle Book finds its balance is in the story. Although the details are creatively tweaked, the outline of the story remains essentially the same: Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a young pre-teen “man-cub” living in the jungle, raised by wolves (Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito) in partnership with helpful panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). As Mowgli gets older, he is forced out of the jungle under threat of the man-hating tiger Shere Kahn (Idris Elba). He and Bagheera are separated on the way back to the man-village, and Mowgli makes friends with a lazy bear named Baloo (Bill Murray), and enemies from Kaa the Constrictor (Scarlett Johansson) and King Louie (Christopher Walken) the gigantopithecus. (A gigantopithecus is a now-extinct ancient species of giant ape, the change was made because orangutans aren’t native to India but gigantopithecus may have been. Another reason for the switch might be because Louis Prima’s widow is a little sue-happy about the animated character based on her late husband.)
Even though the story parameters remain the same and the film also cribs liberally from The Lion King, Disney seems to have given Favreau mostly-free reign creatively. In turn, Favs never forgets that he is making a family adventure film, but also isn’t willing to sacrifice emotional punch for the sake of kiddie appeal. The impact of Mowgli’s situation is felt and the danger feels genuinely threatening, but the film never lingers too long in unnecessarily dark places. A great deal of credit will go to the film’s visuals and stunning character renderings, but the foley team is just as deserving of praise, delivering impact with every growl and bite. Although the ending and main themes are different from the original, it’s still “safe.” But there’s a lot of wiggle room within that safety cushion, and Favreau exploits it all he can.
A great deal of this comes from top-notch voice acting, especially from Nyong’o and Elba. Elba combines Kahn’s bitterness and prejudice with more than a little fascism. With Elba’s calculated delivery, elaborate and expensive displays of the character’s physical strength aren’t needed to appear threatening. Probably due to Nyong’o’s presence, the role of the wolves increases in this film, and it works. Nyong’o plays the maternal protector with heart and passion, and helps fuel the film’s overarching themes of acceptance and family. It’s these themes that really represent the remake’s departure from the 1967 animated original, included a completely different ending.
This version of The Jungle Book revolves around Mowgli’s adaptation to the world around him. His ingenuity and use of tools (referred to as “tricks” by others) comes heavily into play. It is what makes him different from the rest of the animal brethren and also what makes him feared or mocked. While this was also a huge part of the original The Jungle Book, that film concludes with Mowgli naturally returning to the man-village on his own, almost supporting a segregationist mentality. Here, the focus is more on Mowgli learning to use these abilities in conjunction with the animal world, and the animal world in turn learning to accept his differences. Unfortunately, young actor Sethi’s line delivery isn’t quite strong enough to sell these points, but his physicality and timing is excellent.
There are a few more issues which drag The Jungle Book down from greatness.
The film wastes the inspired casting of Johansson, relegating her to a few minutes of screentime. Even then, she is primarily utilized as an exposition device. (Quite literally, in fact.) There’s also a jarring transition mid-film into a full-blown musical, as the original songs only exist as bits of dialogue until that point. (This does give us an updated version of “I Wanna Be Like You”, with new lyrics by original Disney composer Richard Sherman!) Finally, seeing what is definitely Christopher Walken’s face on a giant ape is unsettling to say the least, especially for a film which otherwise goes out of its way to avoid the uncanny valley.
Even with these hard-to-ignore missteps, The Jungle Book is the kind of family adventure that we don’t see much of these days, and the kind we need more of. As a children’s director, Favreau refuses to coddle the audience, but doesn’t make a show of traumatizing them either. It’s to the film’s credit that even if you watched it on mute, it would still be a rich and rewarding experience. (You’d be able to follow the story just fine as well.) The film stands as evidence of the existence of a happy medium within the studio system, and Favreau, with his odd hit-and-miss track record, was a good choice to find it.Liked This? Share It!