Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Jungle Book (2016)

Disney's recent foray into live-actionizing many of their classic animated films has had spotty results; 2010's Alice in Wonderland was a re-tooling that strayed too far from the original film, 2014's Maleficent de-fanged one of cinema's most memorable villains, and 2015's Cinderella was just fine, but not particularly memorable.  So although it doesn't have much to live up to, The Jungle Book is undoubtedly the best of this sub-sub-genre.  It honors the original, but adjusts the plot to be less episodic and more story-driven.  To call this a "live-action" film feels a bit misleading; every single shot features computer animation, with Neel Sethi acting as the sole on-screen star of the entire movie.  This would normally be a criticism, but oddly enough, it works; the decision to fully commit to fantasy helps make the film feel cohesive, and the world that the filmmakers create (while cherry-picking bits from Rudyard Kipling's book) is engaging and well-realized.

Somewhere in the jungles of India, a young boy named Mowgli (Sethi) lives among the animals and tries to fit in with them.  Raised by wolves, Mowgli is dubbed a "man cub," and despite his tendency to do things differently from the other animals (making tools), he never considers leaving the jungle and living among other humans.  When the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) gets word of a human living in the jungle, he seeks to kill Mowgli before he can grow into a dangerous man capable of controlling the "red flower," which is fire.  The wolves decide that it's best for Mowgli to leave the jungle, despite resistance from Mowgli's adopted wolf mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o).  Led by the black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsly), Mowgli reluctantly begins the journey to the "man village," but the two are attacked by Shere Khan and separated.  On his own, Mowgli runs into other beasts throughout the jungle, including the giant, creepy snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the giant, creepy ape King Louie (Christopher Walken), and the lovable oaf of a bear, Baloo (Bill Murray).

The Jungle Book is certainly better than expected.  Mowgli as a character works a bit better than the Mowgli from the 60s version by sheer virtue of not being annoying or whiny, which he easily could have been.  This is down to Sethi's naturalistic and laid back performance, something that could easily have been lost in all the CGI shuffle.  Although, he does lack a bit when it comes to reacting to scary or dangerous things (because, let's face it, he doesn't have anything to react to on the soundstage).  Giant Ape about to kill him?  Whatever.  Another thing he has up on the old school Mowgli is his active role in the story; there's not a lot of moping around waiting for the next episode of his life.  He has goals and makes his own decisions, and is a stronger character for it.  This affects the ending, and while I won't spoil anything here, I will say that it changes the entire message of the movie.  Whether that's for better or worse I really can't say.

Vocal performances are top notch; Murray, Kingsley, Walken and Elba (oh God, especially Elba) give it their all and breathe a lot of personality and life into their characters.  But what really brings them to life is the stunningly detailed CG animation, and love it or hate it, it opens up all kinds of doors for the filmmakers.  There's not limit to how the characters can interact, no uncanny valley of mixing live-action backgrounds with the computer effects... the look is uniform and created with so much care that it's easy to forget that what you're watching isn't real most of the time.  I don't think I've quite felt that way about a movie since Avatar.  It would have been so easy for the world to feel sterile and glossy, but the constant grime, bugs, and photorealistic surfaces give the world enough edge to be believable.  I doubt we'll see a movie with better visual effects in 2016.

The climax is exciting and more tense than I was expecting.  I think this comes down to the fact that Mowgli is allowed to be dirty, bruised up, bleed a little.  That helps the danger feel real and give it more edge than a standard Disney movie.  Characters die and stay dead.  Shere Khan is a legitimate threat, with a sinister look and, as I previously mentioned, a wonderful performance from Kingsley.  The character designs for the rest of the character are hit and miss in my opinion; Mowgli looks great, as do Bagheera and Baloo.  But King Louie is ridiculously huge, practically King Kong-sized, and he looks too much like Christopher Walken for me to take him seriously.  It doesn't help that he sings a bit of "Wanna be like You" in an awkward manner that feels totally out of synch with the rest of the movie.  What's odder is that the usage of "Bear Necessities" is really good; it's charmingly unpolished and totally natural.  The score is lovely as well, often homaging the original to great effect (something I think the Cinderella should have done).

So while not exactly an instant classic, the new Jungle Book is a nice surprise.  It's well written, improving some of the story problems of the original, while being visually stunning.  I will always endorse practical effects over CGI, but there are times like this where I just have to sit back and enjoy what beautiful things the tool can create.  The movie leaves itself open for a sequel, and honestly, bring it on.  Director John Favreau clearly has a lot of love for the source material (he told me so in a clip before the film started), and I'd love to see where he could take the characters and continue their adventures.  And now that it's been done to death, maybe even adopt other stories in Kipling's book.  You know there are more than just Mowgli's story, right Hollywood?