Reboot culture is nothing new in Hollywood. Books and films have been re-made and reimagined for quite as long as we’ve had narrative cinema. There’s nothing to lament in the simple fact of such a film being made. If there’s more to say and explore in a beloved universe, let’s have it. But the simple act of doing the thing doesn’t always bring success. Such is the case with The Jungle Book.
Disney has had more success than most studios re-examining some of its most beloved works, but The Jungle Book, perhaps out of an effort to pay homage both to the animated favorite and Rudyard Kipling’s stories fails to do anything particularly new or stunning. Rather, it adds much exposition in an effort to develop Mowgli, his relationship to his adoptive pack of wolves and his history with Shere Khan. It’s a logical move, trying to make your protagonist an actual protagonist as opposed to a kid things just happen to a la the animated version, but it’s not one that lends itself naturally to the story. (But when you’re in a mind to make a sequel, as Disney certainly is, the temptation to try is understandable.)
Unfortunately, for this writer at least, the effort just didn’t work. Young Neel Sethi is a ringer for Mowgli, but whether the result of flat writing or the unnatural act of carrying on a conversation with a creature that isn’t actually there, he just doesn’t come off as the hero of the story. Even given the framework of a hero journey circle, Mowgli isn’t a character to inspire passion. His comrades Baloo and Bagheera remain far more interesting and engaging. To be fair, the backstory doesn’t make Shere Khan any more compelling either. He pulls some nice sinister moves (some of which are so powerfully evocative of The Lion King that you half expect him to belt out a few bars of Be Prepared, or protest that the lady doth protest too much) but the extra bluster that’s meant to build his legend is just that. He’s an imposing character by his nature, we don’t need a whole song and dance to convince us that he’s a baddie.
The film also spends much time exploring the laws of the jungle and the idea that if Mowgli is to live there he cannot so as man does, but must be as the animals he calls family. While this is a passingly interesting bit of world building, its importance feels inflated enough to be on a level with the struggle against Shere Khan. Complexity is often an element found wanting in cinema, but successful complexity begs more cohesion and naturalism than we ultimately get here.
The landscape in which all this happens is beautifully animated, the foliage is lush and the 3D gives a rich and immersive quality to what we see on screen. The world loses this beautiful natural feel in some of the animals that populate it, however. While Baloo, the wolves, the elephants and many other creatures look incredibly real, Bagheera and Shere Khan’s faces still feel rather human at times. But it is in King Louie and Kaa that the stylistic choices become questionable — both are of such massive proportion that they cross into the realm of the ridiculous. King Louie’s face is unmistakably Christopher Walken’s, albeit smashed onto a CGI creature of King Kong scale. Kaa has the look of absolute realism that many of the other creatures do but is betrayed by the appearance of occupying roughly the entire forest canopy.
The Jungle Book might have been a beautiful triumph, but at best it’s just a mostly beautiful bore. Every attempt to make it bigger, grander, more exciting seems only to have sapped it of the energy viewers expect of a Disney adventure.