The Jungle Book walks the line between darkness and Disney fluff

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The Jungle Book

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Amongst the many challenges that come with adapting a beloved story, one issue stands particularly, egregiously alone: what if there’s nothing there? What if you’re doomed to disappoint because the charm of the original is in its flimsiness?

Of course, the 1967 animated version of the Jungle Book is in turn based on the book by Rudyard Kipling, but it’s really the Disney version that has entered the popular lexicon. Here’s the thing about that movie, though: it’s laid-back and plotless, excising pretty much all of the darkness inherent in the Kipling book. Anything besides a slavish recreation of the tone of that classic would feel wrong somehow, and yet, it’s completely inevitable. There is no way to make a Jungle Book movie that isn’t automatically darker than you expect.

I have to admit that my cynicism was on full-blast before viewing Jon Favreau’s version of The Jungle Book: it’s got an all-star voice cast, and the trailer featured both a surprising amount of parkour and carefully edited around the fact that the animals spoke. It looked like the studio either made a Christopher Nolan version of The Jungle Book or tried to sell us one, and neither seemed like a particularly enriching experience. The only upside of cynicism is that sometimes you get proven wrong.

Mowgli (Neel Sethi) lives as a wolf amongst a pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o); although the wolves are aware that the mancub is not like them, they continue to treat him as they would a wolf. This concerns Mowgli’s friend and mentor Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), who knows that the day will come when Mowgli will have to return amongst the men. That day comes precipitously when Shere Khan (Idris Elba) shows up, threatening the truce that has all animals promising peace in a time of drought. If Mowgli doesn’t return to the human village, Shere Khan threatens, things are going to go south. Mowgli is exiled to the jungle, where he meets Baloo (Bill Murray), a lazy-ass bear who cons Mowgli into helping him harvest a never-ending cache of honey, while Shere Khan pursues the hunt.

The Jungle Book is completely CGI — there isn’t a single hair, leaf, branch, berry or bird that isn’t computer-generated (except for the entirety of Sethi’s being). While I have to say that CGI has become commonplace enough that I usually don’t even bother commenting on it, it’s pretty much inevitable here. For what it’s worth, this is incredibly effective CGI – particular care has been taken in depicting the animals not as wacky humanoids who speak and dance but as realistic animals with a limited range of movement who just so happen to talk. The Jungle Book’s world is immersive in a way that few CGI-coated films have managed to be.

The film sometimes falters in its tone, which veers between reverential Disney worship and post-millennial irony (though never as bad as, say, a Dreamworks movie with extensive Sean Paul references). The film has retained a couple of musical sequences from the original animated movie (Baloo’s “The Bare Necessites” and King Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You,” sung by Christopher Walken, of all people) but not really the laid-back feel, making the musical sequences feel a little superfluous and unnecessarily reverential to the Disney source material. It’s not the grim-dark Nolan movie that it looks like from the trailers, but it’s not a silly animation movie with left-field references to keep bored parents happy, either, so its wobbly-footed approach to the material feels particularly egregious.

I don’t see children’s movies very often — not being a child myself, not being the proprietor of one at the moment and assuming that most of you reading this are not literal children, it just doesn’t come up that often. The Jungle Book is definitely aimed at kids but doesn’t feel pandering. It’s visually beautiful, compelling and reasonably faithful to both the tone of the original book and the animated film. It doesn’t hold many surprises, granted; a film of this magnitude and this technical complexity rarely do, but it’s a good time at the movies even if there is no child (literal or otherwise) to placate with it. ■

The Jungle Book opens in theatres on Friday, April 15. Watch the trailer here:

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