John Favreau’s The Jungle Book is the latest in Disney’s modernisation of their animated classics. From Maleficent to Cinderella, Disney has decided to mine their animated classic films and create live action versions of them. Here, the jungle is in fact as animated as the original 1967 film with the majority of it being created via CGI. Neel Sethi takes the crown as Mowgli, the man cub raised by wolves, born into a jungle where he doesn’t belong. Surrounded by a veritable cast of CGI creatures, Mowgli is guided by panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) back to the land of humans.
The original animated film appears to be one that lives in people’s memories as something of a classic. Sure, everyone knows the Bare Necessities song and the racially under toned Wanna Be Like You song, but other than that, what is memorable about the film? Or rather, what is memorable about Rudyard Kipling’s original book? If Favreau’s film is any indication of either text – not much. The story of a boy raised by wolves and the rift his presence causes in the animal kingdom is an interesting one, but unfortunately is a surprisingly lackluster one when delivered as a mostly faithful adaptation of the animated film as it is here.
(Rudyard Kipling’s original The Jungle Book text encompassed many chapters and various fables that worked to provide a moral lesson. However, both the animated film and this one decide to take small segments from the book to create a one story – one that naturally, is not a book. In fact, when the credits roll on Favreau’s version and the title pops up, it is somewhat jarring and confusing – why retain the name The Jungle Book simply for name recognition alone? Why not whack a subtitle onto the film like The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Journey or change it altogether? It’s a trivial complaint for sure, but it does show that this is less a film about wanting to tell a compelling story and more a film that is interested in ticking nostalgia boxes.)
Gone are the songs of the animated original – besides those two well known ditties – leaving behind a series of moments with various creatures. Here is where The Jungle Book does shine – each creature is wonderfully animated and embody natural, realistic movements (well, besides the mouth movements for when they talk). If there is one proud technical achievement that The Jungle Book can walk away with, it is the ability to create realistic, believable animals – thus taking away the need to have real life animals ‘act’ within films. This is a great step forward in digital effects for cinema, one that will hopefully have a lasting effect on the use of animals within films.
These animals are in turn portrayed to great effect by various voice actors – the wonderfully menacing Shere Khan is partially brought to life by the superb Idris Elba, warm, friendly Baloo the bear is voiced (appropriately) by Bill Murray, Lupita Nyong’o once again lends her voice to an animated character with Raksha the wolf. It’s then understandable that when you pair Oscar winning actors with jaw dropping CGI, interesting characters are created. However, this is not their story – it is the story of man cub Mowgli and his journey to find his place in the animal kingdom.
After a drought causes the animals of the jungle to congregate around a communal rock, Shere Khan notices the existence of mankind cohabiting with the wolf pack and demands Mowgli be killed as he is aware of the dangers that mankind can bring to the animal kingdom. It’s here that Mowgli’s journey begins as he abandons the wolf pack to save their lives and reluctantly makes his way to human civilisation. However, this is also where the main issue of the story arises. Within this version of The Jungle Book, Mowgli doesn’t particularly want to leave the jungle, and neither do the other characters. Sure, Shere Khan is a looming threat to Mowgli and some of his friends, and maybe this speaks more to my sensibilities than what the film is delivering, but his reasoning for wanting Mowgli gone is understandable. After all, we have years of knowledge of what mankind is capable of – something that is displayed in the superbly visualised climax.
Part of this dissonance with what the film is displaying and what it thinks it’s displaying is the fact that Neel Sethi’s Mowgli is displayed as a whiny, annoying character. No doubt it’s difficult for a first time child actor to portray a three dimensional character, no less one that has to be created on a soundstage without the assistance of other actors – but unfortunately, Sethi’s Mowgli is a blank slate of a character that fails to shine as someone you are emotionally invested in. The supporting characters are interesting enough, but fail to provide Mowgli with enough agency to move his story forward. Because of this, Mowgli becomes a character full of inaction – he is reluctant to make his way to human civilisation, just as his companions are, and because of this the film feels like a slow Sunday stroll to get to the inevitable climax between Shere Khan and the creatures of the jungle rather than a propulsive story of Mowgli needing to get to safety.
This issue would have been alleviated if this were less a story of Mowgli making his way to mankind, and more a story of Mowgli learning small lessons within the jungle. It’s harsh to criticise a child performance, especially one that is admittedly given so little to work with, however, Neel Sethi is about one ‘yippee’ away from being Jake Lloyd in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. This could be frustrating if the story was compelling enough to feel like it was let down by a poor central performance, but as it is, not even that is interesting enough with poorly written characters and average dialogue.
Overall, John Favreau’s The Jungle Book is a massive technical achievement with some of the finest CGI committed to a hard drive. Great vocal performances are betrayed by a poor central character and average script writing. You may walk away amazed with the visual spectacle you’ve seen, but hours later will struggle to remember anything of note.
Director: John Favreau
Cast: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Idris Elba
Writer: Justin Marks (based on a book by Rudyard Kipling)