Saturday, April 23, 2016
In Which I Review The Jungle Book (2016 Disney Movie)
There came a point during my viewing of this film when I wondered if I'm not just a wee bit too cynical at times. Don't worry, readers. You don't actually have to answer me; I know I am. I've been trying to think back to my childhood experiences of The Jungle Book, the original Disney animated movie. Did I enjoy it then? I think I did, but certainly not the extent of, say, The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast. I liked the songs; I liked Baloo; and I know I loved Kaa (this, by the way, will come up again below so stay tuned). But for me, as a child, The Jungle Book felt too foreign. Talking animals were common in Disney films so I had no problem with that, but the lack of a real world made it too escapist. I've never been in a jungle nor witnessed any of its horrors (and the Disney film mostly makes the horrors of the jungle into jokes--it is, after all, a cartoon) and the cartoon landscapes felt too otherworldly to ever feel deadly. In the new live action film, the otherworldly feeling goes right out the window and becomes very real. But as I stated above, the realness feels flat, or at least unexplored, lacking in the depth of horror we know the jungle can offer. A jungle, in literature, can often represent as terrifying an ordeal as a haunted castle or a wild moor. More so, even, because the jungle in the actual Jungle Book is one of those wildly untapped ones; the kind that people go in to and never come out of (sort of like Mowgli). There are giant apes and ruinous temples and raging rivers and apparently elephants who are also expert landscapers. The jungle itself is supposed to feel like a living creature in this film, one that can be wild and deadly but also one that can nurture and endure. The film does a passingly good job at the latter, but it's the former where it falls down for me. We spend the last bit of the beginning of the movie moving from landscape to landscape with Mowgli and Bagheera--and yes the jungle is so vast and uncharted that it contains everything from rocky terrain, to dense forest, to yellowed Savannah, to something that looks akin to your local midwest state park. The jungle in this movie is the world, but it never feels truly like a threat (hint: it should!). It's not just Shere Khan who threatens Mowgli; the entire situation should be a threat. If Mowgli wants to chose the jungle (because that's where his multi-creatured pack is) that's fine, but the movie never shows the true horror of the jungle; but you better believe it shows the horrors of the man village. Bathed in fire--not just normal fire, mind you, but a fire that licks the sky and threatens to overtake the men standing around its warmth (tiny beings reduced to mere shadows before its red and yellow glow)--the man village is an unholy nightmare from which Mowgli runs.
--The animation of this film is gorgeous. The standout animation scene is probably Mowgli sitting on Baloo's belly, floating upstream.
--I especially loved the re-imagining of King Louie as a giant ape sitting on a throne of a long forgotten temple. Christopher Walken gives a very nice performance moving from stuttering kindly voice in the dark to oversized temple-destroyer in a matter of moments. Also, a round of applause to whoever thought up Mowgli finding a cowbell seconds before you first hear Louie speak.
--While I didn't like the actual plot ending, the ending-ending of the book closing whilst laying on a blue velvet cloth is so damn iconic I actually sniffled a bit.
--"You have never been in more danger of being extinct than you are right now." Baloo was on point.
--Even if their roles were smaller, most of the voice actors did a fantastic job bringing their talents to animal creatures. I say most because despite loving Idris Elba in everything he does, he was a bit too whisker twirling bad kitty this time around; the cartoon tiger was elegant in his villainy. He also missed the chance to showcase Shere Khan's trauma and (yup) humanity in light of his fears.
--Not nearly enough Kaa! The giant snake was masterfully rendered but her role was so small. And she didn't even get to sing "Trust In Me" until the end credits!
--Some clunky dialogue like right after Kaa tells Mowgli the story of the man and his cub who fought Shere Kahn in the distant past, she says, "and that man cub was you!" No kidding. You don't need to make this text. The young kid is wearing red pantaloons. It's clearly Mowgli.
--The actor playing Mowgli was a hit and a miss. One the one hand, he's incredibly young and his costars are tennis balls on sticks so it takes a certain amount of imagination to even make this work, but on the other hand, at no point did I forget that I was watching a kid "play" around. He never became Mowgli, in other words. Also, his annunciation could use some work at times.
--The constant "law of the jungle" refrain got wearisome.
--I'm glad Bear Necessities wasn't cut, but Baloo and Mowgli couldn't even sing it together in time?
--Final Grade: B
--Final Thought: This is a mostly acceptable version of a beloved Disney story and it strays little from the wheelhouse. But where it does stray is noticeable and without any real depth of exploration of what the film is really trying to say.