Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Jungle Book

Lately Disney has been releasing their movies to critics so far in advance, that it's impossible to avoid the critical buzz entirely. It's particularly annoying with next month's Captain America: Civil War, which I am dying to see, but the overwhelmingly positive response still may have had a slightly negative impact on my opinion of The Jungle Book. I've been fairly hyped for this film for a while now, with the early claims that this is perhaps the most technologically-advanced movie ever made. With a director whom I generally like in Jon Favreau (known primarily for Iron Man), and a voice cast overflowing with talent, I had a feeling Disney's retelling of the 1967 classic cartoon could be something truly special. The only thing I wasn't sure about was how they would tell the story. So with that, let's get into the plot.

Mowgli is a young man-cub who was raised by a wolf pack in the jungles of India. He's learned the law of the jungle from his adopted family, and is constantly striving to live up to his full potential... though he isn't quite sure what that is. His whole life he's been advised by a well-meaning Bagheera that he shouldn't be using his "tricks" to get an advantage. Of course, these tricks are the remnant of his long-forgotten past with a human family. Things aren't too bad for him in the jungle, at least until a drought brings the murderous tiger Shere Khan out of his seclusion. Smelling the man cub, he threatens Mowgli's wolf family to turn over the boy or they would suffer the consequences. Knowing that he can't risk the safety of his pack, Mowgli departs on his own into the jungle to try to find his place amongst the dangerous creatures within...

You'd think that a movie based on a well-known cartoon would make this exempt from spoilers... but, it actually has more differences from the original film than you'd expect. Don't get me wrong, it's still riddled with call-backs and homages, but it takes on its own life as well in this live-action (I guess we can call it that) retelling. The music, for one thing, is directly taken from the original 1967 film, and not just the songs. The opening music is exactly the same as what we get in the old Disney cartoon, and we get motifs of the original themes throughout the film. While that's not necessarily a criticism, I do wish there had been a little more creativity in the music department. And no, coming up with an extra verse for "I Wanna Be Like You" doesn't count.

But why are we talking about the music? Everyone knows that the visuals are the headlining act of this show. And what a show it is! The effects in this film are better than I may have ever seen, recreating such a realistic jungle setting that I constantly have to remind myself that they didn't film on location. The animals look fantastic as well, and full credit to the animators for making me believe that they were actually talking. That's not an easy task to pull off. I loved seeing all of the beloved characters from my childhood actualized in photo-realistic form, especially those adorable wolf cubs. Seeing Mowgli interact with the wolf pack, Bagheera, and the other animals at the watering hole, I had no problem buying into the fantastical scenario they were selling. Sure, a kid can grow up in the jungle and learn to speak with animals. At times it literally felt like the Disney Nature photographers went out and filmed it all. Highest of kudos to the CGI artists for their work here. Bravo.

As for the story... I had a bit of a problem with it. Granted, I did appreciate that there was some actual motivation behind Shere Khan's vendetta against the man cub. The scene where we're first introduced to the purring tiger is wrought with tension, and we immediately realize how dangerous this creature is. While that alone would have solidified the threat of Shere Khan for the rest of the story, however, the writers turned him into a psychopath, murdering animals in cold blood and even threatening harm upon the cute little wolf pups. There was something so clean about the tiger tracking down Mowgli in the animated film, as opposed to taking his wolf family hostage to get him to return. It would have kept us on the edge of our seats wondering where Shere Khan was at all times, rather than checking up on him periodically to see what evil thing he would do next.

Not only that, but Baloo wasn't quite as lovable as he was in the cartoon. First of all, he was kind of a jerk to Mowgli, manipulating him to gather honey even though he knew the bees would sting him. I never got the impression that he really liked the boy, more that he felt he could take advantage of his skills to meet his own ends. Don't get me wrong, I loved Bill Murray's performance here. His affable quality seeps through the animation and brings this gentle bear to life. His version of the song was nice to hear, but even that was a bit underwhelming for me. For one thing, they only sang one verse of it. If you're going to commit to making this a musical, then commit. Instead, this movie is hovering somewhere between a family-friendly adventure full of eye-popping wonder, and a frightening allegory of man's place in the food chain when left in the wild. This complaint is personified once we get to Christopher Walken's enormous orangutan, King Louie. He comes off like a mob boss (which I'm sure was intentional), but it came off a bit more menacing than I think they may have intended. Then the contrast of going from a threatening interrogation to another musical number was a bit jarring.

Now, lest you think I hated this movie, let me end on a more positive note. I think the relationship between Mowgli and his wolf family is pretty sweet, and even though he gets manipulated to a degree that I couldn't quite go with, I think Bill Murray's Baloo is affable enough to get a pass. There are some interesting flourishes to the story that I appreciated, like upgrading the role of elephants in the jungle. Ultimately, I wish they would have tipped the kid/adult scale a little bit more to the kid side. I really wanted to love this movie, especially with the glowing reviews from practically every other critic out there... but I wasn't allowed to. It's unfortunate, and maybe a few more viewings will increase my opinion of this movie. For now, however, I have to give this film three out of four stars.

THE JUNGLE BOOK is rated PG for some sequences of scary action and peril