two decades ago, Walt Disney Pictures would be in the midst of a renaissance. Even ignoring its partnership with Pixar, the company's animated division has been on a hot streak, producing a string of critically and commercially successful hits like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and a little film called Frozen. But where the mouse house's animation department continues to place a premium on forward-thinking, original storytelling, its live-action complement has preferred to look backward, rebooting classic studio properties for the millennial age. A few of these efforts have been successful—The Muppets was wonderful (its sequel, less so), while Maleficent put a fresh and exciting spin on Sleeping Beauty—but the concept of dusting off golden oldies for a new audience remains both predatory and lazy, an easy substitute for real creativity. Last year's Cinderella was perfectly fine, but it offered no real reason for its existence beyond seeing quality actors stuffed into ravishing costumes. Now comes The Jungle Book, based on Rudyard Kipling's popular anthology, which in 1967 Disney turned into a beloved cartoon musical, and which is now receiving a live-action adaptation.
Though perhaps I should put "live-action" in quotation marks. It is true
that this movie features a flesh-and-blood actor in Neel Sethi, a
12-year-old Indian-American who plays the iconic Mowgli with competent
cuteness. He also does it basically by himself, appearing in front of
the camera alongside a potpourri of CGI animals that prowl across
digitally rendered landscapes. (There are even rumblings that the movie could compete in the Best Animated Feature category at next year's Oscars.) In the process, The Jungle Book
strives to position itself as a new classic for the current generation
of Disney-reared children, trying to combine the plucky joy of the prior
cartoon with a tinge of contemporary seriousness. In this, it fails.
But it remains notable as a signpost that marks the continually
disappearing line between the corporeal and the computerized,
illustrating just how skilled Hollywood technicians have become at
turning artifice into art.
This is not a trivial accomplishment. The paradox inherent in
imaginative filmmaking is to dazzle audiences with fantastical worlds
while simultaneously convincing us of their reality. And director Jon
Favreau does a remarkable job of walking this tightrope, creating a
verdant forest of bright colors and exquisite detail that also seems
soaked through with hot, heavy moisture. (The supposed setting is India;
filming took place in Los Angeles.) In the film's opening scene, Mowgli
swings from vines and scampers across branches, and you never once
sense that he's performing these actions surrounded by green screens and
lighting rigs. You're too busy being welcomed to the jungle.
If only he had given equal thought to the film's story, which I scarcely
need describe. Abandoned as an infant, Mowgli found shelter in the
forest thanks to the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), and he was raised
in a wolf pack by Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o). Everyone acknowledges his
existence as a "man-cub", but he nevertheless lives in harmony with his
four-legged brethren. That is, until Shere Khan (Idris Elba, oozing
malevolence), a Bengal tiger with a scarred face and a score to settle,
declares Mowgli persona non grata. Fearing for the safety of his lupine
family, Mowgli absconds, venturing into the great unknown with nothing
but his wits and his fear to guide him.
"Weapon of Choice"
video), and learns valuable lessons about unity, perseverance, and
self-acceptance. It's all very comforting and familiar and bland, which
makes for an unflattering comparison with Disney's own Zootopia, which just last month preached similar lessons with far greater style and verve. Where that movie felt fresh, The Jungle Book
is entirely recycled, with Favreau even stooping to import two songs
directly from the original cartoon. The film's animals may be invisibly
composed of ones and zeroes, but it's the writing that's really
None of this diminishes The Jungle Book's craft. It is an
undeniably impressive motion picture. (Its use of 3-D is basically
neutral; it doesn't add much—well, except for three dollars to your
ticket price—but at least it doesn't dampen the jungle's magnificence.)
And Sethi, in his first feature role, should be commended for credibly
portraying a child sharing the same space with digital creations. But
while the film is an arresting visual achievement, it is frustratingly
flat as a piece of storytelling. It doesn't help that Favreau's attempts
to darken the proceedings feel forced; there is a death that's
curiously lacking in impact, as well as a mundane climax that passes for
clever but is actually just tired and incoherent.