I still have the Bare Necessities stuck in my head.
The Jungle Book (2016) is a live-action adaption of the classic Jungle Book film and novel, directed by John Favreau. It stars newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli, a young boy who’s grown up in the jungle, but after Shere Khan (Idris Elba) threatens his life his panther friend Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) must take Mowgli away to join his own people.
While this may not be an animated film in the traditional sense, 95% of what appears on-screen is not real. Its from a computer. And while the CGI is not quite on Avatar‘s level, it is still pretty damn impressive work by these computers. While the CG jungle is never going to look quite as good as the real thing, its still rich and lush with wonderful attention to detail. However, it is still made in a computer which, no matter if its Skynet smart, isn’t going to make it look as good as the real thing. When Avatar created a digital world, it was on an alien planet with visuals that could not be achieved practically, whereas much of the environment in The Jungle Book is just, well, a jungle. A dense and interesting jungle sure, but nothing that can’t be recreated in a real jungle, and because of that it always feels slightly inferior to the real thing. Its still definitely visually interesting, but just proves computer-generated imagery can never be beaten by good ol’ nature-generated-imagery.
Now to the book part of the title. The film skews darker and more serious than the classic Disney animation, and hence benefits from a greater sense of scope and grandeur to the story. It does suffer from a few story-telling problems, ranging from weird character decisions to rushed relationships, but overall is pretty concise for a film-based-on-a-film-based-on-a-book. It is also intelligently aware of the plot of the original animated film, deviating at key points to keep it fresh for an older audience and interesting for younger people who may not have seen the other film. For example, only two songs actually pop up in this film (one really fluently and the other is monkey-fisted) but both manage to harken back to the classic film while still keeping with the relatively more serious tone. And yes, Bare Necessities is one of those songs. And it is still catchy 50 years are its inception. For younger viewers this is likely to become the definitive version of The Jungle Book, and in many respects it deserves that title.
And the cast! Damn, there are so many celebrity voices in this film, but I’ll get to those in a second. First off, Neel Sethi does an ok job as Mowgli. Pretty impressive for a screen debut and the fact that he had to act to green sheets for the entire film, but even so you can consciously tell he’s acting to nothing in most scenes. His eyes never really focus on the characters in the way they should and he constantly feels dis-interested or just bland. He looks the part, but aside from that is pretty forgettable.
And NOW we can delve into the voice work. Idris Elba as Khan is solid, showing the right amount of menace and cruelty. The character himself is more fleshed out than the animated one although he does make a few strange decisions that make you question his intelligence (which isn’t great for a sinister villain). Ben Kingsley’s Bagheera is also great, as well as Lupita Nyong’o’s Akela, but the real star of the show here is Bill Murray’s Baloo. What bloody inspired casting. Bill Murray’s sardonic charm and humour is perfect for the loveable bear, and dare I say he may be even better than the original Baloo (which I loved as a kid). The only missed opportunity in the cast is Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa. Not only does she have very limited screen time, her one scene is basically wasted and over way too soon. But one out of several is a solid hit rate for a movie with such a great cast.
Jury’s out if this is superior to the 1967 original, but The Jungle Book is still a great live-action (well, sorta) adaption and a smart way to introduce a new generation to this classic. Its not going to set the jungle on fire, but is still likely to become a popular family film going forward.
General Audiences: Highly Recommended
Film Buffs: Recommended
Kids: Highly Recommended