The Jungle Book manages to be kinda-sorta a good film, despite the fact that the odds are stacked so much against it.
Live-action remakes of animated properties don’t usually inspire much confidence. The live-action The Last Airbender springs to mind as an example of a live-action adaptation of an animated franchise that failed on every level – in terms of its casting, writing, direction. It can often be hard to translate the unique aesthetics and logic of animation into a live-action format without losing much of the appeal of the original animation in the process.
In the case of The Jungle Book, a live-action adaptation of the animated Disney 1967 classic, the challenges it faces are compounded. There’s only one actual human character, Mowgli, in the entire movie (and a first-time child actor, Neel Sethi, to boot), and all the other characters are talking CGI animals that need to look and feel like the real thing. With so much of the film subject to the technical skill of its special effects crew, it’s easy to imagine how the film might be especially vulnerable to being torpedoed by defects in any one of these requirements.
To director Jon Favreau’s credit, however, the film does pull it off to a degree, despite these challenges. The Jungle Book is a high-spirited, if somewhat derivative, kid’s movie with a great deal of visual splendor. There’s a little uncanny valley quality to the talking animals at the start, in particular: the lip synch with the animal mouths can look and sound a little janky and floaty, like the voices aren’t coming out of the animal but are instead disembodied (which they are). But after a while, I somehow got used to it.
In terms of performances, the various voice talents behind most of the animals get it down to a decent degree, but they’re pretty uneven. Lupita Nyong’o, in particular, gives an emotional performance as the she-wolf Raksha. Idris Elba, however, can barely keep his performance above being a caricature of a generic whisker-twirling villain as the vengeful Shere Khan. As for Neel Sethi, he does admirably given that this was his first film and that he probably had to contend with green screens and endless parkour.
The film struggles when it comes to tone, however. On the one hand, it tries to be a more realistic and gritty alternative to the lighthearted animated film of the 1960s. But it has to balance that with its homages to the original’s sense of camp, not least its famous musical numbers and the comedic pratfalls of the small, not-as-cute-as-their-animated-counterpart critters. The sight of a photo-real bear singing “Bare Necessities” or a gigantic, florid ape bellow “I Wanna Be Like You” Walken-style is cringey at best and grotesque at worst. Live action CGI does not a musical make.
In all, The Jungle Book is a good film, but I wonder why it even exists in the first place. Does it provide a more progressive take of the moral lessons promulgated by its predecessor, particularly in terms of human hubris and protecting the environment? Is it a proof-of-concept that CGI animals can actually not suck? Who knows. Watch it for a visual extravaganza and as an object lesson not to judge Jungle Books by their trailers.
I give this: 3.5 out of 5 tools