In the not-too-distant future, film scholars will look back on our current age of the “reboot,” with all its feigned seriousness, and assign a psychological and cultural significance to the practice. Such a critical reading would not be unfounded, as the idea that everything old must be made new again (often at the expense of any good will the original iteration might have earned and maintained) is clearly pathological. Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is likely to be cited as a case in point.
The film is indeed a marvel of computer-generated cinema, but that very technological polish is a hindrance in and of itself. The animals look almost photorealistic, which makes their slight anthropomorphization all the more unnerving. There’s nothing quite like watching a wolf mouth English syllables, or being able to recognize Christopher Walken’s eyes in the skull of an animated gigantopithecus, to take me out of a narrative, but spectacle was always more important than story in this adaptation. Any time a film set entirely in an Indian jungle proudly proclaims itself as having been “filmed in downtown Los Angeles” in the closing credits, you know you’re in murky waters. (Saying that this was “filmed,” rather than “rendered,” might be a bit of a stretch in the first place.)
Beyond The Jungle Book’s dalliance in the Uncanny Valley, the film has a number of other detracting components that leave it comparing unfavorably with its source material. The familiar story is burdened with implied statements on environmental degradation and colonialism, and the requisite reprise of musical numbers from the original animated film are shoehorned into the second act so obtrusively that one wonders if there were some contractual clause mandating their inclusion. In addition, many of the film’s more dramatic scenes would seem excessively frightening for its target demographic. Although the children in the screening I attended didn’t seem overly concerned, I would certainly have had nightmares if I saw this movie before I was seven.
If this film has a saving grace beyond its technical accomplishments, it can only be the voice acting of its ensemble cast. Idris Elba delivers a particularly menacing Shere Khan, Ben Kingsley plays Bagheera with a militaristic precision, and Bill Murray plays Bill Murray as a bear. Whereas I typically fail to see the point in casting highly paid stars in voice acting roles, due to their lack of recognizable screen presence when animated (looking at you, Chipmunks franchise), the talent of the cast in this case elevates what can only be considered a predominantly redundant remake. The sole exception to the otherwise blameless troupe is Need Sathi as Mowgli, but even his shortcomings are forgivable. He has the unenviable task of carrying a film as a child actor, while also trying to emote convincingly to what must’ve been little more than a tennis ball on a monofilament in front of a green screen.
Ultimately, Jon Favreau has once again proven himself to be a competent, if often uninspired, tent-pole director. For better or worse, this latest version of The Jungle Book is likely to perform well at the box office both in the U.S. and abroad, not to mention the perennial home movie revenue that will fatten Disney’s coffers for decades to come. Despite my myriad objections to the film’s tone and execution, and my fundamental uncertainty as to the necessity of its very existence, this updated take on a childhood favorite could have been much, much worse. That being said, Garry Shandling deserved a better final role than a porcupine whose sole purpose in the film is to pee on things. Rated PG for some sequences of scary action and peril.