Director Jon Favreau’s last film behind (and in front of) the camera, 2014’s Chef, was a heavy-handed feature length metaphor for how disenfranchised he had become whilst making blockbusters. In that film, his titular chef character left his high-paying job following the recipe book in order to experiment for little pay, but was rewarded with culinary development bordering on the artistic. So how does he follow a film that was essentially an extended eulogy to how he’s sick of this blockbuster bullshit? Well, by making a $175 million CGI adaptation of The Jungle Book for Disney, obviously.
As easy as it is to scoff at this very notion of going back to the very thing he so recently criticised, The Jungle Book is mightily entertaining, with animal special-effects so groundbreaking that at times they look more like the under seen Disney Nature documentaries than a special effects extravaganza. The film may be your average blockbuster on a storytelling level, but visually it aspires to art and painstakingly achieves it.
It is no understatement to say that it makes Ang Lee’s Life of Pi look behind the curve in comparison. In fact, Life of Pi feels like a central influence here, as that film similarly translated a tale that didn’t shy away from the toughest elements of “the circle of life” into a family friendly blockbuster spectacle- it goes without saying that this is far closer to Rudyard Kipling’s source material than the cutesy Disney animation from the sixties.
If there is a flaw, then it is the screenwriters’ choice to take elements from both the original, tougher novel and the light and fluffy Disney classic. As joyful as the two musical numbers are, they feel included more as fan service than giving the film any deeper purpose- especially when juxtaposed against breakneck, oft-wordless sequences of a boy surviving in the wilderness that suggest this is nothing less than The Revenant, but y’know, for kids.
In an age where every piece of pop-culture feels the need to “go darker” for a new generation, here is an adaptation that firmly earns that right, with the pitch-perfect voice casting of Idris Elba as Shere Khan (mere weeks after another antagonistic voice role in another Disney movie) surely set to give children nightmares in the coming weeks, rather than just being cartoonishly menacing.
The voice cast are uniformly perfect- but when you cast Bill Murray and Christopher Walken in central roles (and give them both musical numbers!) you know you are in for a treat. Sure, it is safe casting on Favreau’s part, as audience goodwill ensures that nobody is at risk of not falling in love with Balloo, or being creeped out by the strange dialogue rhythms of King Louie.
But with the groundbreaking technical side of this film, the fact Favreau casts two of the most universally beloved pop-culture figures alive exactly to type isn’t a problem- if anything, it is to help normalise a film that required an entire army of designers to create. Murray makes expository dialogue seem casual, whilst Walken makes every single line of dialogue sound like a new default line for somebody attempting a Christopher Walken impression.
So, with all of this talent onboard (Academy Award winners Lupita Nyong’O and Ben Kingsley have equally prominent roles), it is unsurprising that Neel Sethi, a newcomer with only one prior, obscure, IMDb credit to his name, is the weak link in the cast. By weak link, I mean he is utterly dreadful, his iteration of Mowgli being a precocious, spoilt brat that you just want to be swallowed whole by any number of the animals on his tail.
I understand child actors face a lot of criticism, but the fact Disney auditioned two thousand kids for this role and this was the best they could get seems to suggest that children would be better off staying in school. Even taking into consideration he was acting entirely against green-screen, this is one of the weaker child performances in recent memory, joining the kids from Looper and Anchorman 2 in the pantheon of “recent movies that were almost ruined by poor child acting”.
The Jungle Book is the first entry in a franchise, as opposed to a one-off adaptation. Robbed of the melancholic coming of age ending of the animation, there is a slight sense of anti-climax- especially considering the mounting tension that comes directly before. But Favreau has done an excellent job crafting an entertaining, warm and visually sumptuous adaptation of a story we all know and love. It’s not the king of the swingers, but it did leave me charmed enough to see if future instalments can indeed elevate it to the status of jungle VIP.