Jungle Book (2016)

(Sight & Sound, BFI)

Disney’s new version of The Jungle Book remakes a 49 year-old cartoon – the 1967 Jungle Book – using post-Avatar technology. Directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man), the film was largely made in CGI, with the live-action elements filmed on a Los Angeles soundstage. The resulting jungle adventure is spectacular, often exciting and fairly enjoyable, yet it’s also misconceived.

It constantly stirs memory of the old cartoon, replicating numerous backgrounds and famed songs from Disney’s breeziest, funniest picture. Yet this remake turns Jungle Book into an intense adventure, full of (bloodless) violence and peril which may surely upset much of its target family audience. Surely not every tot has been inured to nightmares by watching The Dark Knight and Hunger Games? For older viewers, Jungle Book may still feel conceptually incoherent because of its ties to the cartoon.

The basic story is the same. Mowgli (child actor Neel Sethi in his first big role) has been raised from infancy in the jungle by wolves, but is threatened by the human-hating tiger Shere Khan. The film follows Mowgli’s adventures as the animals try to take him to safety. In the 1967 cartoon, Mowgli was a pigheaded brat; the new film gives him a proper story arc, starting out as a similarly annoying kid but ending up a cunning, fearless hero, like the Mowgli in the Rudyard Kipling stories.

Repeatedly, though, the threats to Mowgli are magnified. The “bad” animals are monster-sized and unfunny, from the boy-eating snake Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) to an almost Kong-sized King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken). Louie has to sing an unconvincing “I Wanna Be Like You” but then goes into a full monster-movie act, smashing his way through dark stone ruins in pursuit of Mowgli. Without the song just before, the scene might have worked. But with the song effectively overlaying the jolly Jungle Book cartoon on top of the scene we’re watching, it feels almost parodically wrong, like a Mad magazine vision of a Disney horror film. (I say this as a defender of Disney’s scary Return to Oz, 1985, which never tried to imitate the Wizard of Oz musical.)

Of course, the film isn’t all dark. There’s a palpable lightening in palette and tone when Baloo is introduced as a lugubrious, honey-loving sloth bear voiced by Bill Murray. He’s certainly appealing; the slouchy CG animal evokes Murray’s presence, even embodied as an oversized ursine. But while this Baloo is amusing enough, he’s not as charismatic, expressive, or even as well-written as the 1967 Baloo voiced by Phil Harris. The CG jungle and animals are perfectly convincing, but very seldom do they have the anthropomorphic affect created by animators such as Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. As the sole human character, Mowgli is never more than scrappy and plucky – which, in fairness, is a great improvement on the cartoon Mowgi.

The 1967 Jungle Book was despised by many critics in its day, partly because it had so little respect for the Kipling stories. The new version doesn’t feel much like Kipling either – the jungle characters still speak in colloquial Americanisms, with none of the “thees” or “thys” of Kipling’s prose. (The recent The Witch was closer.) However, the script incorporates a bit more of Kipling, such as the wolves’ “Law of the Jungle” song and a scene of predators and prey drinking together in a “Water Truce” during a parched summer. Both elements come from Kipling’s The Second Jungle Book, published in 1895.

A sequence where monkeys hurtle Mowgli through treetops captures some of the vigour of Kipling’s prose, though it still falls short. A buffalo stampede might have also come from the books, but it’s equally close to Disney’s The Lion King (1994), which seems to have influenced some of the remake’s plot. (In the new version, Shere Khan murders Mowgli’s adoptive wolf father Akela to set up a revenge story.) Such elements marry up well enough; yet the whole film, so redolent of its cartoon predecessor and yet so tonally different, feels like a wrongheaded mismatch.

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