The Jungle Book: Film Review
Cast: Neel Sethi, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken
Director: Jon Favreau
1967's Jungle Book set the standards for family films.
The Disney film is so beloved by many that a live-action remake by Iron Man director Jon Favreau seems to be almost redundant.
It's the same story from Rudyard Kipling's books and sees newcomer Neel Sethi taking on the role of Mowgli. For years, Mowgli's lived under the tutelage of the wolves, raised as a man-cub by Akela and Raksha (Esposito and Nyong'o respectively) but the tiger Shere Khan (Elba) has been unhappy about it.
During a time of drought, there's a truce, but once the rains come, Khan decides it's time for Mowgli to die. Fearing for his life, Bagheera (Kingsley) sets out to escort the young man-cub to the village and to safety.
But the journey is a difficult one...
There's no denying the visual achievements that The Jungle Book has achieved.
Despite being shot downtown in LA, there's nary a street corner in sight and the whole thing actually manages to look like it was done on location in the African wilds. There's no disputing the immersive landscapes are redolent and reminiscent of the kind of design unleashed by James Cameron's Avatar all those years ago. The grounds are cluttered with all types of animals - from cute cub wolves to a porcupine (voiced by the late great Garry Shandling), this is a world that's perhaps over-stuffed with demonstrations of what the CGI can do.
Sethi has his moments as Mowgli, but the first time actor doesn't quite always hit the mark as the man-cub - though admittedly, it must have been tough acting a one kid show against CG creations. He's hampered by some dialogue issues and some scenes that don't quite pull together as well as perhaps Favreau had envisioned.
That said, there are moments when the CGI creatures and their relatively realistic talking (think Babe but a bit straighter) gels in a way that brings the charm of a family film to life. There are also plenty of darker moments too - from Scarlett Johansson's silky and sonorous snake Kaa's voice echoing around the cinema to Christopher Walken's King Louie (complete with Shatner-esque Dixie jazz version of I Wanna Be Like You), this is a film which will likely give the younger end of the Disney audience some discomfort in their seats, thanks to its nightmarish visuals.
And there's no disputing Murray's Baloo is a case of perfect casting and a sign that this anthropomorphic animal has been exquisitely rendered with its source material in mind.
Equally, Favreau's evocation of the "red flower" that blights the forest and Shere Khan's past are quite cleverly manifested too; visually, this film soars - even if the 3D seems to damage the effect by dimming it all.
But it's also a film that feels emotionally redundant and that lacks any real threat.
Elba has the menace of Shere Khan, but he lacks the script to back it up; certainly the sequence where Akela is casually despatched feels like it has no emotional ring to it and no oomph to satiate his cruelty.
Ultimately, The Jungle Book is a film that has plenty of charm but little edge.
Whether that is enough to satiate family audiences these days remains to be seen; there can be no denying the plaudits for the impressive digital work and the slavish devotion to the source material, but as an experience, The Jungle Book just manages to do the Bare Necessities to keep you entertained while the lights are down.