Disney’s new live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book is a solid, suitable family entertainment. That sounds like a complement, and it almost is. But it’s also the film’s biggest drawback. It’s fine, but it’s just that: fine. You wont be bored, but you wont be particularly excited or inspired either. Perhaps the film’s gravest sin, as is the case with most “good” modern blockbusters is that it’s passable. It doesn’t suck by any means, but that’s the film’s only goal, to avoid sucking, which is Disney’s only goal as of late, and the filmmakers don’t feel inclined to do much more than that either.
If you’ve read Rudyard Kipling’s source novels, or seen Disney’s 1967 animated film, then you know the story fairly well: after life in the jungle becomes too inhospitable, a young boy, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) must reluctantly return to the human world. Though it’s worth noting that there are a few revisions from both the novels and the animated film, most notably the ending, but it’s mostly the same story. The only problem is, while well told, the story also lacks the inspiration that made those earlier iterations classics. Director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks hit all the beats everyone is expecting from a Jungle Book adaptation, getting all the memorable parts from their sources, but also the same act structure and developments every other adventure film uses. It gives the film an air of overfamiliarity and cookie-cutter dullness.
But that’s also what the filmmakers are going for: the same old story everyone knows, adjusted and newly calibrated to modern tastes with all the latest filmmaking toys. The trouble is it makes the film feel tonally confused. With it’s more mature and slightly less kid-friendly approach, it’s obvious the film is playing to current blockbuster culture’s taste for darker, grittier, more “realistic” and photo-realistic revamping of old franchises, but they also try to keep it feeling like a Disney movie. This means cutesy, kid-targeted humor that falls flat most of the time (seriously, even the kids weren’t laughing at my screening) and some familiar musical numbers (only two, thankfully) that are shoehorned in and register as extremely dissonant with the rest of the film. Sorry, Disney. You can’t have a major character get callously murdered one moment and ten minutes later have Baloo singing “The Bare Necessities.” Well, I shouldn’t say you can’t, but the film doesn’t sell it and dilutes the potency both the dramatic moments and the more lighthearted ones.
What about those aforementioned new filmmaking toys? I will concede that the film is rather marvelous from a technical standpoint, the visual effects and Favreau’s directorial eye creating a world that simultaneously has verisimilitude and a hallucinogenic, fantastical dream quality that Disney has built its reputation on. But while this eye serves Favreau in the creation of pictorially beautiful images filled with a modicum of wonderment, it fails him in telling his story through these images, or loading them with emotional heft. But that’s true of most of Favreau’s past films (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Elf, Chef); the filmmaking is in service of illustrating the script, and, being an actor himself, Favreau really works more in the mode of an actor’s director, focusing more on performance than on cinematic technique.
And too his credit, most of the performances, done primarily through voice-over with some facial and/or body motion capture, are good. Ben Kingsley and Idris Elba are great, Bill Murray was intelligently cast as Baloo, given his stature as the king of hipster goofballs, and Lupita N’yongo makes solid use of regrettably limited screen time as Mowgli’s adoptive wolf mother. The real standout, in both performance and animation, is Christopher Walken as King Louie, whose whole sequence is one the film’s more entertaining and memorable, only partially soiled by a rendition of “I Wan’na Be Like You.” Unfortunately, Scarlett Johansson’s cameo as the snake Kaa is less than impressive (something is off about Johansson’s performance, it doesn’t have the conviction of some of her best roles), and the lead Neel Sethi is cute, but that’s all he really plays: cute. He makes a decent Mowgli, but I found something lacking in it. Funny enough, he’s a perfect reflection of the film surrounding him: solid, not bad at all, but less than impressive and leaves you wanting.
In fairness, I’m partly evaluating this film as I would any other, without taking into account its audience: children. And it’s as a children’s film that The Jungle Book is most successful. The film has an archetypal, ancient quality, making it like a myth or a moral fable. I feel silly talking about a film’s “message,” but in this case, it’s appropriate since The Jungle Book’s messages about protecting and living harmoniously with nature, valuing communalism over rugged and destructive individualism, and fighting prejudice are worthy of exposing to children (it makes a better anti-prejudice film than Disney’s other animal centric film released this year, Zootopia). And thankfully, the ubiquitous “moral of the story” isn’t obliquely stated or beaten over the heads of the audience, so that it just feels like a lesson that you just happen to stumble upon as a result of intelligent consideration of the film, an organic result of the story that’s being told.
I just wish it was a better told story. There is a lot to like about The Jungle Book, but there’s nothing truly remarkable about it. It may sound like I’m being contrarian, since the film is receiving almost universal praise from critics, several of whom I deeply admire and respect. So as I walked out of the theater, I was confused by my underwhelmed response.
But I think I know where the disconnect lies. I’ve been using adjectives like “fine,” “solid,” and “passable” throughout this review. And the reality is, most Hollywood films these days aren’t even that good. They’re boring, incoherent, clichéd, sexist, racist, homophobic, lacking in inspiration, visually uninteresting, and just plain dumb. To it’s credit, The Jungle Book isn’t really any of these things, but neither is it the the opposite of them either. It’s just good enough to skate by any of those negative labels, and makes brilliant use of modern CGI and has some worthwhile thematics and messages to boot. You see, I think many have confused a passable movie with a good one, because the bar for what qualifies as a “good” movie has been lowered so, that anything that isn’t dull or clichéd or has any sense of imagination is considered a must-see film. The Jungle Book is a bit dull, it just manages to smooth over its dullness with a perpetually moving narrative. It hides its clichés behind good performances and its nature as a remake (of course it’s going to feel familiar! We’ve seen this story dozens of times before!), which is still no excuse. And it substitutes admittedly clever use of the latest technology for imagination.
I’ll use this word once more: the film is passable. Between the various live-action adaptations of its classic animated films and various blockbuster action/adventure film its been producing by way of the Marvel superhero and Star Wars franchises, Disney has been making a billions out of producing cinema that’s “good-enough,” movie’s that play to childhood nostalgia, but lack any creative spark or artistic ingenuity. And we as an audience are so afraid these tokens of our childhood will be screwed-up and tainted, that when they in fact don’t suck, it’s cause for celebration and praise. But in reality, these franchises have been screwed-up, drained of any vitality and wonderment that they once had due to corporate meddling and lesser artists imitating great ones. And so “ok movies” have come to be lazily labeled “good movies.” Frankly, as a movie lover, that’s kind of depressing.