Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The Jungle Book (2016) - Movie Review

In the canon of important modern directors, I’m honestly surprised that Jon Favreau doesn’t get brought up more often in conversation. Sure, his work is sometimes hit-and-miss with critics (sometimes for no good reason like with Cowboys & Aliens) but when you put him into context with the current state of superhero films, he played a crucial role in getting where we are right now. 2008’s Iron Man was a serious make-or-break situation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe; if they screwed up, we wouldn’t have gotten the proceeding 8 years of astoundingly consistent output from Marvel Studios.

Hindsight does funny things to people, and sure, Robert Downey Jr. set a precedent for pitch-perfect casting in Marvel films, but if it wasn’t for Favreau’s engagingly populist style, we’d be looking at a far different landscape right now. After the lukewarm response to Iron Man 2, which admittedly wasn’t amazing but still decent, he went on to Cowboys & Aliens… and then he made Chef, which was basically his own admission of how difficult it is to break out of the big leagues and just make his own products. Well, he seems to be working with Disney once again with today’s film, a re-telling of one of Disney’s perennial classics.

The plot: Found as a baby by the protective Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), Mowgli (Neel Sethi) has been raised in the jungle as one of the wolf pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). However, once the scorned tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) discovers the presence of a human in their midst, he immediately sets out to kill him before he destroys the jungle. To keep him safe, Mowgli is left in the care of laid-back bear Baloo (Bill Murray), where he begins to learn his place in the world.

Sethi does a decent job as Mowgli, and manages to show off that oh-so-human ingenuity without it seeming beyond his years, but he doesn’t leave that big an impact when all said and done. That’s probably because he’s surrounded by seasoned veterans whom have all brought their A-game for this one. Kingsley brings a very wizened and regal air to Bagheera and works really well alongside Sethi and Murray. Murray himself pulls off a sort-of modern slacker with his vocal mannerisms, and yet it doesn’t cross the line into anachronistic reaching at any point. Elba is all things intimidating and threatening as Shere Khan, letting each word hang in the air like a sharpened dagger above his prey’s head.

Nyong’o doesn’t have as much screen time (or air time in this instance) as I would have liked, but her scenes with Sethi are heart-warming in that very motherly way. Scarlett Johansson brings that almost-alarmingly effective voice from Her, only she imbues it with a layer of menace that makes for just about the sexiest predator of the jungle. It strikes that balance that even most live-action femme fatales are losing their knack for. For the love of God, give this woman more voice-over work. And then there’s Christopher Walken as King Louie, in fairness the main reason I wanted to see this film in the first place. He gives a nice New York mobster touch to the delivery, and the character’s added size was probably just so it could contain the weight of Walken’s vocals.

I have been somewhat of a slacking critic, as I haven’t done my usual legwork for this film: I haven’t watched the original Disney version, nor have I looked back through the director’s filmography to get a better feel for their body of work. However, since Disney’s animated musical is hardly something I’ve missed my entire life so I remember a fair bit about it, and I’ve seen enough of Favreau’s work to know that he is a man to be respected when it comes to the craft. For those in the audience who wanted a strict re-telling of that original classic, you’ve come to the wrong party. Same goes for those who thought that this might adhere more strictly to the Rudyard Kipling stories it was based on. Favreau wanted to strike a line down the middle, appropriating elements from both while taking the story in its own direction. Hell, the ending (without getting into too heavy spoiler territory) almost seems designed to go against both of those crowds at the exact same time.

In fact, this film is honestly at its weakest when it follows the animated film more closely, namely when it comes to the music. Don’t get me wrong, I like Bear Necessities and I Wan’na Be Like You but their relatively perky natures don’t fit into this darker-tinged version of the story. Well, not in their entirety at any rate: Composer John Debney used an orchestral alteration of Bear Necessities to help build a very powerful moment when Mowgli uses his “tricks” to help a herd of elephants. On the other hand, I Wan’na Be Like You manages to create a continuity hole with how it uses the word “fire” when that appears nowhere else in the film; it’s always referred to as the “red flower” in every other instance.

The original film’s main aspect was its soundtrack. They wanted to showcase the talents of their go-to musical duo the Sherman brothers, and they brought in jazz musicians to help deliver it along with some noteworthy names in radio acting. This film nearly had the Beatles as co-stars; I mean, c’mon. By contrast, this seems to have taken a similar route as Darren Aronofsky’s Noah in that it wants to tell a more mature, if a brush more fantastical, version of a story that many people are familiar with. Gone are the allegorical marching elephants, and instead we have these quasi-mystical creatures that treated like walking gods of the forest.

It foregoes a lot of Kipling’s metaphorical strokes for a lot of face value story-telling, but damn it all if this isn’t really well executed face value story-telling. We get a scarred Shere Khan with a more personal grudge against man, a King Louie who operates a court of primates and who towers over anyone and everyone (making the inevitable destruction of the possible elephant-worshipping temple he resides make a lot more sense), a Baloo who is able to hold his own in a fight (the ending fight with Shere Khan is amazingly good) and a Mowgli who, in a world of talking animals (which is fairly inconsistent in terms of what animals actually get voices), uses humanity’s only inborn trait to survive in the jungle. Man’s ingenuity is a great thing, but it can lead to disaster if it isn’t monitored; it’s not the most original more environmentalist message I’ve seen on film, but it is delivered in a fantastic way and it’s bolstered by great character writing.

This film’s CGI has been one of the most lauded aspects of the entire production, and it’s pretty clear to see why. Weta Digital was involved in the visual effect department but only with King Louie’s character animation, which kind of makes sense given how advanced that design was. Other than that, production house Moving Picture Company, who previously worked on films like The Martian and The Revenant, handled the computer effects. I bring this all up because the animal depictions in this film are so good that the last time I saw animation this precise was back with the recent Planet Of The Apes movies done by Weta. Getting the kind of film-acting emotions to show on an animal’s face without resorting to either the Uncanny Valley or peanut butter is a tall order, but the use of mo-cap here is staggering. No doubt, this is a film for the annals that prove the worth of CGI. Fantastic work was put into the scenery as well, creating probably one of the single best scene transitions I’ve come across in years from Kaa to a cave where Mowgli's father is residing. The jungle and its many twists and turns feel like they’re living onto themselves, imbued with an air of vibrancy that gives the mystical touches of the story more effect. Even in the scene comprised largely of humans, it contains this mysterious and dangerous tone with how the fire is depicted.

All in all, while I’m not exactly floored by the thing as a lot of other people are, this is another rather impressive notch in Favreau’s filmography. The voice acting is downright amazing, the effects work is probably some of the best we’ll see all year and the writing makes for a more mature but still family-friendly take on the original story, making this one of the few remakes that actually has a reason for its own existence. Trust me, that is so rare it’s unbelievable.

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