Sunday, April 17, 2016

"The Jungle Book" Review

Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book is a curious case when it comes to movie adaptations. Several different versions of it have been put to film over the years, but they never seem to want to follow the plot of the source material. They'll often pick one portion of the story to tell (usually the first part where the tiger Shere Kahn is the main villain) or simply borrow elements from Kipling's work while telling a different story altogether. I don't know why Hollywood steers away from faithfully adapting this tale, but nowadays The Jungle Book seems to be more iconic for its characters and their motivations than for what those characters do.

The newest film, produced by Disney and directed by Jon Favreau, also takes liberties with its story. It's a remake of the 1967 animated film first and foremost, so it focuses on the boy Mowgli traveling to the man village to escape from Shere Kahn and only gives a few glimpses of the other humans throughout. Unlike the animated film though, this one actually has quite a few nods to the source material. Not only do the wolves who raised Mowgli play a much bigger role in this version, but we also see some of the book's darker aspects like Shere Kahn trying to corrupt the younger wolves and Mowgli realizing that man is too destructive to be compatible with nature. There's also a scene involving Mowgli, Shere Kahn, and a valley full of water buffalo that feels like an ironic wink at the tiger's comeuppance in the book.

Most notable are this movie's frequent mentions of the Law of the Jungle, the strict rules of nature that the animals teach Mowgli to live by. This concept is what really gave Kipling's tale its identity, and this new movie is one of the few versions I've seen that centers around it so strongly. The story might not be very close, but in terms of tone and feel, Jon Favreau's film is one of the better adaptations of the book.

That's not to say that the tone always redeems its story, however. The beginning is probably its weakest part, and that hurts this film a lot. We don't learn how Mowgli came to live in the jungle until about the story's halfway point, which makes it difficult to form an emotional connection to him and most of the other characters. It's like the film decides to skim over its setup because it assumes that audiences already know its characters and conflict, and that doesn't work. There's also a major plot point that more than one character somehow learns about offscreen, which makes for a lot of confusion when they break the news of it to Mowgli. The film's final scene might also make a few people scratch their heads, especially if they are familiar with The Jungle Book's story, but it's harmless.

Another element that can make or break a film's story is how well the actors perform it. I wouldn't say that the cast of Favreau's film is as strong as the 1967 lineup, but it helps that some of the characters in this version have very different personalities than their cartoon counterparts. Bill Murray as Baloo the bear, for instance, is a much better casting choice than you might think after you see what kind of character he is in this movie. Instead of the big-hearted and fun-loving Baloo from 1967, we get a disinterested con artist who frowns on following the rules and develops a conscience by the end of the story. Murray plays that quite well, and since the believability of the character relationships is an issue with this movie, making Baloo's relationship with Mowgli insincere at first helps a lot.

Most of the other actors do a fine job, particularly Neel Sethi as Mowgli. The only performance that falls flat for me is Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the snake. Kaa has an odd history with adaptations to begin with, since he was a hero in the book but is almost always a villain in the movies. I don't mind that they made the character female in this version, but this incarnation of Kaa is supposed to be a crafty temptress, and Johansson's voice doesn't quite reach the necessary level of that. Someone like Angelina Jolie or maybe Michelle Pfeiffer would've been a better choice, in my opinion.

And then there's Christopher Walken as King Louie the orangutan.

I think a lot of people had the same gut feeling when they learned that Christopher Walken would be playing a giant, singing ape in this movie: that his performance was either going to be incredibly awesome, a complete train wreck, or both. And it was both, which of course is the best kind of Christopher Walken performance. I suspect that the filmmakers are also aware of the actor's bizarre, comedic appeal, because in this version, Louie makes his first appearance when Mowgli rings a cowbell.

Having said that, I can't really say if Walken's performance makes this movie entertaining for the right reasons. King Louie is a hard character to pin down in film because he was never actually in the book; he was created for the animated film as a means to include another song and was named after the swing musician who voiced him. He was tailor-made for that specific movie, and because he has no place in the source material, none of the Jungle Book movies that he's appeared in since then has quite known what to do with him. Having him sing in this newest film is especially strange because this version isn't even really a musical. I give Favreau's team credit for trying to make Louie more important to the story in this film, as he reveals that big plot point to Mowgli, but the scene leading up to that is just so odd that it overshadows any emotional impact of the reveal.

Overall though, the newest version of The Jungle Book is an enjoyable film. It's obviously meant for children, but it's heavy enough for adults to appreciate it too, and while it can be underwhelming and awkward at times, it has just as many strong and solid moments. If it looks like something you think you'll like, then you probably will like it. It's worth at least one viewing on the big screen.

And for anyone who wishes that it followed the book more closely, don't give up hope. There's already another Jungle Book movie in the works that's aiming to come out two years from now.  

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