The Jungle Book is Walt Disney Studios’ latest live-action reimagining of one of its classic feature-length cartoons, although to call the movie “live-action” is a bit of a stretch. As the end credits proudly proclaim, the picture was “filmed in downtown Los Angeles,” which means this jungle is comprised of heaps of green-screen sets and motion-capture technology.
With the exception of Mowgli (played by Neel Sethi), the orphan boy raised by wolves, everything you see in The Jungle Book is animated, which is a marked difference from Disney’s previous pillagings of its vaults. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the Sleeping Beauty-remake Maleficent and Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella all piled on the special effects too. But those movies justified their existences beyond brand-name recognition, regardless of their quality: They were driven by artistry, not marketing.
The Jungle Book is driven by computers. The movie, which has been earnestly directed by Jon Favreau using every conceivable tool in the big-budget special effects arsenal, boasts the most photorealistic grass and trees and skies since James Cameron’s Avatar. There are shots in which the movie could pass for a nature documentary, even though it’s set in a world in which almost every animal speaks perfect English. But the illusion doesn’t gel: Favreau nails the small details but whiffs on the overall picture. The better these talking beasts look, the more the film resembles a gorgeous screen saver. You admire The Jungle Book, but you can’t lose yourself in it.
No matter how fearsome the vengeful tiger Shere Khan looks, you’re chucked out of the film the moment the beast starts spouting threats in Idris Elba’s menacing, dulcet baritone. You would think watching Baloo the bear singing The Bare Necessities with Bill Murray’s voice would be fun — it should be fun — until you actually see it. Instead of turning the song into a showstopper, Favreau throws it away, as if he were fulfilling an embarassing obligation. The same goes for I Wan’na Be Like You, sung by Christopher Walken’s simian King Louie; you have to wait for the end credits for the tune to get its proper due. The musical numbers are a huge part of the legacy of the 1967 cartoon, which was directed by longtime Disney animator Wolfgang Reitherman (The Bare Necessities was nominated for an Oscar).
But proper song-and-dance numbers are beyond the reach of this sombre, serious Jungle Book: A quest for honeycombs to feed Baloo’s voracious appetite is about as comical as things get. Whimsy has no place in a self-important movie trying to sell the illusion of anthropomorphic animals that hold grudges and exact revenge — including murder — like humans do. The film feels like a step back from the two Babe films Fury Road’s George Miller produced and directed in the 1990s, which brought a talking pig to life in cruder but infinitely warmer fashion. Those movies were filled with the sorts of hair-raising adventures that are a hallmark of classic children’s literature: They were genuinely enchanting.
The Jungle Book has its moments — the panther Bagheera voiced by Ben Kingsley, the python Kaa voiced by Scarlett Johansson and a funny porcupine voiced by the late Garry Shandling are all memorable creations — but the overall film feels cold and mechanical, befitting a movie that was made primarily because technology made it possible. The Jungle Book won’t be the last Disney cartoon to get a live-action do-over (Beauty and the Beast is due next year) and it’s not even the last CGI-adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s source novels (a non-musical version, directed by mo-cap king Andy Serkis, arrives in 2018, with Cate Blanchett and Benedict Cumberbatch Bale providing some of the voices). The movie is practically guaranteed to be a mammoth hit, because who can resist those ads? But here is a rare breed of Disney family film, one destined to be watched once and then never again, not even on long road trips.
Cast: Neel Sethi. Voices: Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Garry Shandling.
Director: Jon Favreau.
Screenwriter: Justin Marks. Based on the books by Rudyard Kipling.
A Walt Disney Studios release. Running time: 105 minutes. Jungle violence. Playing at area theaters.