Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The Jungle Bunch (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: After encountering the jungle hero squad The Champs, maniacal koala Igor (Keith Silverstein) is left stuck on a desert island. In his absence, the Champs Natacha the tigress (Dorothy Fahn), Tony the sloth (Kaiji Tang) and Goliath the rhino (Richard Epcar) decide to retire with Natacha and Tony taking care of the penguin cub Maurice. However, years later, it seems that Igor has returned to seek revenge. This time, it’s up to a now grown-up Maurice the tiger penguin (Kirk Thornton) and his own hero team, The Jungle Bunch, to stop Igor before he destroys the jungle.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with anime (particularly those who grew up on Digimon) should recognise at least a couple of the names from the English dub of this film, and it seems that they’ve brought some of their experience in the trade with them as the acting here isn’t that bad. Thornton as our lead may be stuck with a rather bland character but he does well enough at keeping the role within its boundaries as a once-removed legacy superhero (more on that in a bit). Andre Gordon and Erin Fitzgerald as Gilbert and Batricia (dammit, there goes my hair-pun trigger) are decent enough as members of the titular group but their thinly-veiled romantic subplot is honestly a lot more interesting… even if the film makes it a point to shy away from such things. Cam Stance as Miguel and one of the frogs gives them enough breathing room to exist as separate characters, while Chris Smith as the other frog ends up making a nice double-act with Stance, resulting in a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern situation that, if the film took time out to focus on any one thing, might have made for a solid contribution.

As for the older guard, the Champs, I have to admit that not only are these characters far more interesting to watch than our leads, the acting matches that effect. Fahn as the protective tiger Natacha works well with the parental angle, which is rather fitting considering her best-known role is as a mother in the original Digimon series, but also does well with the pseudo-crimefighting angle of the story, more so than pretty much anyone else here. Not for lack of trying, though: Tang as this almost Zen master sloth makes for a solid parental figure alongside Fahn, and Epcar puts his expertise to good use by filling the body of Goliath with enough earthiness and bass to make it stick. And then there’s Silverstein as the villain, who does well enough with the dialogue in how he lets the posh malice of the character ring through, but he’s ultimately held back the same as everyone else because of both the writing and the animation.

The animation here is done by French company TAT Productions… and wow, is that a fitting name to see attached to a film that indeed looks like tat. Not only that, it’s animation that looks bad in varying different ways. For as many different types of animal that we are shown, they are always presented looking like plastic or rubber; never flesh or fur. This inconsistency is furthered by the character designs, which seemingly couldn’t decide between the more realistic depiction of said animal or the more traditional toonified version. For instance, it’s kind of bizarre seeing the majority of the Jungle Bunch looking relatively realistic… and then you see Batricia, who has big, full, human-looking eyes and weirdly defined fingers. It’s as if her position as the only female in the main group (excluding Natacha with the Champs) had to be emphasised by making her the most visually appealing(?) member.

That’s a bit odd, but that’s still nothing compared to the most glaring issue here: The lip sync. I get that this is a French production and so it was likely animated with French voice actors in mind, but good God, the lip-syncing here is among the worst I’ve ever seen in a theatrically-released animated film. This makes old-school kung-fu movies look like Miyazaki productions by comparison and it is never not distracting.

As for the writing at the heart of this whole thing, it’s stuck between two embarrassingly separate worlds. On one hand, it delivers a combination of incredibly weak jokes and slapstick humour that doesn’t so much not register as much as I am struggling to figure out if they were even meant to be funny to begin with. This isn’t helped by how a fair few of the longer jokes rely solely on repetition to work, meaning that we’re stuck sitting through a couple moments stretch on into infinity in the vain hope of a chuckle. I get it, okay?! Maurice and Natacha act like each other! We don’t need an extended sequence of them literally copying each other word-for-word to get that across, nor the numerous others that follow!

On the other hand, between the film’s emphasis on both the Jungle Bunch and the Champs that came before them and the general tone of the production, this is basically Watchmen as filtered through nWave Pictures. It treats the two groups of jungle protectors like superhero groups, complete with rather pointless masks over their faces while they’re on the job (something that is only barely explained in-universe through a moment involving a mouse wearing a leaf bikini… because of course it is), and even incorporates elements of the legacy superhero into the equation through Natacha, Maurice and even Maurice’s son the goldfish. I’d bring up how this family tree shouldn’t exist, but then again, this film plays around with literal nature vs. nurture in potentially interesting ways.
I say “potentially” because, as a barely-concealed superhero story, this is remarkably safe. Like, even for a kid’s version of this story, this is tame. It sticks to the more surface-level aspects of the idea, namely Natacha being overprotective about her adoptive son getting into her line of work, and mainly just involves pissing contests between the two groups over who should be doing what. This is bad enough, but also consider how the group that isn’t even in the title ends up being the more compelling of the two, especially the hedgehog member of the group who we barely get to see in all his Greatest American Hero-cribbing glory. For a film borne out of a lengthy media franchise to have a supporting cast that is this much more interesting than our leads, maybe they should have gone back to the drawing board on this one.

All in all, this should’ve stayed on TV. The voice acting may be quite good, certainly more striking than I’m used to hearing from this kind of low-end production, and there’s a couple interesting ideas floating around but it’s near-impossible to vibe with either of those things. The animation is tacky, the lip-sync for the English dub is insanely distracting, and for a film involving a koala who throws mushroom bombs and wants to destroy the jungle Lex Luthor in Superman Returns style, this is quite underwhelming both as the family film on the surface and the superhero caper underneath.

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