The Jungle Book is Visually Gorgeous, Thematically Muddled

As with all Disney films, Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book opens with the, now quite elaborate, Disney logo. The camera soars backward over a fairytale kingdom (a “Magic Kingdom” if you would), past the Princess Castle to create the iconic logo. But this time, the camera keeps pulling back, through jungle foliage, seamlessly beginning the film without a cut. It’s a cool idea, that The Jungle Book’s titular jungle lies just outside the Magic Kingdom, within the same world. The Jungle Book is filled with stunning visuals of lush, ancient-looking foliage and astoundingly rendered CG animals. While the film does not quite deliver on the storytelling front, its achievements in the field of rich spectacle nearly make up for those shortcomings.

This Jungle Book is not another adaptation of the Rudyard Kipliing stories but rather a live-action remake of the much-loved 1967 animated feature. There are many recognizable elements: musical numbers, Mowgli’s red loincloth, myriad talking animals, ancient ruins occupied by scads of primates, and the plot of the original is, if memory serves, essentially kept intact. Just as before, “man-cub” Mowgli (Neel Sethi), found in the jungle and raised by a pack of rule-oriented wolves under the watchful eye of Bageera the panther (Ben Kingsley), lives a life of natural idyll until his presence is discovered by Shere Kahn (Idris Elba), a tiger with serious issues regarding human beings, and he must make his way to the nearby man-village. The movie plays out as a kind of talking animal road-movie, with Mowgli getting into and out of various adventures and predicaments with characters like good-time bear Baloo (Bill Murray), hypnotic python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), and great ape/mobster King Louie (Christopher Walken).

The plot and storytelling are only fine. Director Favreau and writer Justin Marks make attempts at complexity and humor, but mostly fall short. The film’s themes are a bit of a mish-mash, warning against the dangers men present to nature but also celebrating human ingenuity, stressing the importance of belonging to a group but also the need to break away from the group. None of the themes is explored with any real depth, which won’t likely bother children, the audience for whom the film is intended, but it may leave the parents attending those children wanting a bit more. The film’s humor is similarly child-oriented, not in the shrill, obnoxious style that will repel parents, but it will not appeal to them either. Of course, the exception is Bill Murray’s Baloo, who gets laughs simply on the strength of being a bear voiced by Bill Murray.

Even if one knows before watching The Jungle Book that no animals were used in the filming, they are likely to want to fact check after the movie, so convincing are the CG animals, all of whom have an unbelievable weight and tangibility. Since his directorial debut with 2001’s Made, Favreau has shown steady improvement in his visual style and, in that regard, The Jungle Book, is a triumph. So visually sumptuous is the film, that one wishes the filmmakers had taken a chance on removing the dialogue, allowing the images to tell the story. This may not be Favreau’s best film yet, that would be 2008’s Iron Man, but it might be his most impressive. The man can create an image, that’s been proved. Next time let’s hope the script can keep up.

B-

The Jungle Book (Walt Disney Pictures)

Director: Jon Favreau

Writer: Justin Marks

Producer: Favreau, Brigham Taylor

Cinematographer: Bill Pope

Editor: Mark Livolsi

Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlet Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken

ENGLISH/PG/105 MIN.

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