Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Neel Sethi, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson
Spoilers Within: No
Originally posted 20th April 2016 on Letterboxd.
I’ve never been one to lay praise on Jon Favreau’s directing or acting: the former ranging from average-to-atrocious franchise pieces to narcissistic self-cast indulgence. Additionally, films that are fundamentally created with visual effects have usually failed to capture my attention, so it’s safe to say that The Jungle Book was never really on my radar but I went along anyway with the will to be swayed.
Thing is, whilst it did capture my attention more so than any other computer generated green-screen adventure has before it, it’s because of this fantastic attention to detail that I couldn’t help turn my focus to the other, weaker parts of the film.
For starters, Neel Seethi as Mowgli is just terrible. Acting – of any age – should be totally competent or the narrative grinds to a standstill whenever lines or emotions are delivered, and by simply remarking that a kid isn’t a great actor because of his age or inexperience just isn’t a good enough excuse. There are casting calls, auditions, and several other pre-production hoops an actor must jump through before principal photography begins, and Favreau and casting director Sarah Finn are telling us that Seethi was the best of the best to fit the role of Mowgli. Evidently I hugely disagree, but it’s not just Seethi and his stiffly expressed emotions that are a problem with the casting.
Here’s where my imaginary inbox gets filled with death threats: Bill Murray is simply not good. Bill Murray is lazy. He’sunquestionably been a large part of some of the best films ever made, but his post-’90s appearances – both physical and vocal – phone in his style, without even so much as trying. His turn as Baloo was totally unaffecting for me, all because his scenes were filled with typical Murray schtick as opposed to a warm and selfish-but-good-natured brown bear. Murray has coasted on this ‘he can do what he wants because he’s Bill Murray’ adage for a long, long time, and it started to wear thin almost immediately. Some of the casting was inspired, though, including Ben Kingsley’s Bagheera, and Christopher Walken’s aloof King Louie, the latter proving that you can reign in your iconic voice and still portray a character without losing that signature entirely.
The story here is excellent, but it always has been, and even though they included more dramatic weight toward the end with regards to the explicitly preachy ‘The Red Flower’ it still remains an excellent story. Correct me if I’m misremembering, but I recall that in the 1967 Disney version, the forest fire was not sparked by Mowgli but rather a lightning strike splitting a dead tree. This act of nature would have been preferable to Mowgli starting it as an accident, as Seethi’s reactionary shot to the blazing vegetation behind him was met with such neutrality that it made his character seem like a bit of a dick, especially because the life-altering implications of the (surprisingly slow) burning would have a direct effect on his surrogate family.
A point of dispute I’ve heard come from both fans and non-fans alike: was The Jungle Book a musical, or not? I honestly can’t tell, and I don’t think Favreau et al. could either. A low swelling of ‘I Wan’na Be Like You’ started with Louie adopting a sprechgesang technique (the term for ‘spoken singing’ in which pitches are sung but in a freer flow similar to speech) then turned into a fully fledged musical number; transforming the formerly gleeful, Godfather-esque scene into more of a moment of shoehorned fan-service; and although ‘The Bare Necessities’ was better realised because the whole concept of song had been mentioned to an unfamiliar Mowgli, it was still haphazardly worked in. Though the latter was fine, perhaps the film would have kept its identity better had it not tried to mimic the perfect Disney classic.
Aside from a few clunky moments when stitching Mowgli into the frame, the visuals were an absolute feast, all of the vistas and backdrops were astonishing to look at and served as both a living character and a distraction from some of the poorer character moments. The creatures – from the elephant herd to the pangolin – were simply amazing to look at, but the very concept of talking animals has been tarnished for me in the past with films like Cats & Dogs (or any number of DTV talking-animal drivel) and countless British TV advertisements, and although these animals are not real, they look real enough for the technique to be more diverting to me than to the next person.
In truth, it wasn’t as inessential or frustrating as the similarly praised Life of Pi, but that’s all due to the terrific, timeless story, but when both the story and visuals are striking enough to overlook them in favour of everything else, it’s a shame that the ‘everything else’ was so average.