Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: Live-Action 'Jungle Book'

I bet some of you might be shocked... Me... Reviewing one of Disney's recent live-action remakes? Have pigs flown?! Is the apocalypse near?

When someone in your house owns the Blu-ray and really wants you to watch the movie with them, you do the team player thing. So I watched it, because out of all the remakes that Disney has been doing and will be doing, I was actually mildly interested in this one. Not interested to the point where I really wanted to go out of my way and see it, but I would check it out if someone had it or if it was on the channels.

Anyways, Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book...

Now here's the not-so-shocking part... I didn't love it like other folk did.

I kinda liked it.

Let's get one thing out of the way. Excellent VFX and CG. Movies like these have really, to paraphrase Steve Hulett, blurred the lines between animation and live-action. Everything in this movie except Neel Sethi (the kid who plays Mowgli) is animated, and everything looks and feels real. That's quite an accomplishment for 99% VFX movie, especially in several summers where the effects feel fake or green-screened.

Justin Mark's script alternates between pretty good and "checks the boxes". The attempts to emulate Walt's 1967 animated adaptation fall flat, and feel tacked on for people who grew up on the animated classic. The Jungle Book isn't one of the better Disney animated films, but context is key when talking about the last film with Walt's fingerprints. Walt was dying when The Jungle Book fully entered production, and he was a changed man by that point in his life and career. The Walt Disney of 1966 was not the Walt Disney of 1936. I reckon, if Walt had optioned the rights to Rudyard Kipling's books during Disney's Golden Age, we would've seen a film that was closer in tone to this picture. Something akin to his Snow White and Pinocchio, a lot of bite and darkness to offset the lighter moments.

Walt didn't want that kind of film. In 1965, he let story man Bill Peet know that. Peet had written a treatment that felt very much like one of Disney's earlier films, and not the wacky and laid-back tone of the preceding feature - The Sword in the Stone. Peet left the studio after being there for nearly three decades, Walt told the new story team to not read the Kipling books, and just make a fun comedy with great characters. That they did, and if you the take the 1967 film on those terms, you'll get a lot out of it. It's a film brimming with personality and energy, and boasts rich art direction, an overlooked and atmospheric score by George Bruns, and lots of great Sherman Brothers songs.

This Jungle Book felt a little less energetic, and while it does fine aiming for the more epic and serious tone it's going for, it's also a little dull. Baloo singing 'The Bare Necessities' only feels like it's there because this is a Disney-made remake, and they have to reference the iconic animated film that everyone knows. The same goes for the very lackluster performance of 'I Wan'na Be Like You', which doesn't have a sliver of the energy Louis Prima's version had. Tonally, I felt it was all over the map. Moody and big in some scenes, it felt like a throwback to goofy 90s/early 00s talking animal movies in other parts. Particularly the scenes with Baloo and the snarky critters that watch Mowgli climb towards beehives.

Its best parts concern the wolf pack. The wolf pack is only in the beginning of Walt's film, and soon they are swiftly forgotten. Walt's movie is - to reference Passport 2 Dreams' excellent review from a few years back - like a road movie, it's basically Mowgli going from place to place, meeting these characters that dominate their portions of the film. It works well in that context, Favreau's film is more of a traditional adventure. Mowgli is more fleshed out here, as are the wolves. They're referenced a lot, and we see them from time to time, they're more crucial to the story. Here, they follow the books a little closer - Shere Khan takes control of the wolf pack, and will only recede if he kills Mowgli. He wants Mowgli dead because his father burned his eye long ago.

In Walt's 1967 film, he is a sly and confident prowler who simply doesn't want a man in the jungle as he fears the man's fire. Here, he wants revenge. Both equally valid Shere Khans, one just happens to be comically sinister while the other is all-out gruff and deadly. I liked how Shere Khan didn't appear until 3/4 into Walt's film, making for a lot of suspense and build-up.

But Walt film comparisons aside, The Jungle Book is decent as a Kipling adaptation. Again, I liked a lot of what they did with Mowgli and the wolf pack. The action scenes and quieter parts are directed well-enough, nothing truly eye-popping or jaw-dropping here. The VFX crew did their work, and it certainly all felt real. It is at its best when it's being its own thing, and if they stuck to that, perhaps we could've had a real winner on our hands here. Disney will not be doing this for their future live-action remakes, especially now that Alice Through the Looking Glass and Pete's Dragon haven't set the box office on fire. We'll just keep getting the originals dressed up in "cool" clothes.

Due to that model, I will give Favreau's film props for at least trying.

It makes me all the more interested in Warner Bros.' live-action Jungle Book movie, though.

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