There was much ado when Disney announced that they were going to make live action versions of some of their most beloved animated films, but so far, the results are a far better than what the naysayers were predicting. “Cinderella” was a lovely, if safe, first step, and while “The Jungle Book” doesn’t quite hit the same highs that “Cinderella” does, it’s packed with thrills, and it has the courage to go about the material in its own way. It should be noted, though, that this ‘own way’ may scare the hell out of young children.
Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a “man cub” that was found abandoned in an Indian jungle by the panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley). Bagheera asks the wolf pack, who recently had pups, if they will take care of him, and they gladly oblige. Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a man-eating tiger, takes issue with the animals protecting Mowgli, threateningly suggesting that more than just Mowgli may die if they continue to do so. Mowgli doesn’t want harm to come to anyone in his pack, so he agrees to leave. Bagheera walks him to the nearest man village, but Shere Khan interferes, and the two are separated. Mowgli is nearly done in by Kaa the python (Scarlett Johannson), but is saved by a sloth bear named Baloo (Bill Murray). Baloo appreciates Mowgli’s ability to make “machines,” but Shere Khan will not stop until he’s had his man cub meal. Further complicating matters, Mowgli has attracted the attention of King Louie (Christopher Walken), a giant orangutan who wants Mowgli to teach him how to make fire.
Plot-wise, this isn’t far removed from the animated version, but there is one key difference: this film has menace by the truckload. The scene between Mowgli and Kaa is borderline terrifying (some criticized Disney for pulling a DreamWorks and casting the roles based on box office clout, but Johannson has the perfect voice to lull Mowgli into a dreamlike trance, not to mention sing “Trust in Me” over the credits), and Shere Khan is a first-class manipulator and stone-cold killer, knowing the wolf pack’s weaknesses and exploiting them ruthlessly. Sure, the film’s tone is much lighter once Baloo appears, but that doesn’t happen until Act II, and even then, Act III is pretty dark. It’s not the scariest PG movie ever made, but the only ones that are scarier were made before the PG-13 rating came into existence (“Poltergeist,” “Jaws,” etc.). You’ve been warned.
There are two (main) things that keep “The Jungle Book” from being a much better movie. One, sadly, is Neel Sethi. Goodness, does he look the part, the most adorable Indian man cub you could ask for, but his acting is wildly uneven, which is surprising give director Jon Favreau’s experience directing younger actors to decent performances in “Zathura” (no joke, that movie sports some of the finest work Kristen Stewart has ever done). The other thing is the inclusion of a second musical number. It stands to reason that if any song from the original were going to be included, it would be “The Bare Necessities,” and they handled that one perfectly. It’s not an elaborate song-and-dance number, but two buddies strolling down the river in a crucial bonding moment. The second song, on the other hand, doesn’t fit the tone of the scene at all, and since the song plays over the credits as well (where it works perfectly), why not just leave it there? Did “The Jungle Book” start out as a full-blown musical but had the musical numbers edited out after a few disastrous test screenings, a la the 1994 Nick Nolte bomb “I’ll Do Anything”?
Disney surely has a hit on their hands here (and is already thinking sequel), but there is room for improvement in the “Jungle Book” universe. The voice casting is exquisite (bonus points for finding a role for Sam Raimi), but Sethi needs to step up if he’s going to be the primary live-action lead. In their favor is the fact that they are already past the hardest part, which is that no one cares whether a sequel differs in any way from “The Jungle Book 2.” Still, the studio would be wise to not be complacent going forward.
(3 / 5)
This review originally ran April 14, 2016 on Bullz-Eye.com.