For the second time in two weeks after watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I felt like the IMAX cinema I was in was some strange Bizarro world. For the second time in two weeks, I felt I was watching a different movie from everyone else, and had an opposite reaction to everyone else upon exiting the cinema. So does that make my experience of Disney’s The Jungle Book good or bad?
Let’s just put it this way – “The kids will love it”. Don’t understand what that means? Read on.
The Jungle Book claims to be a “live-action” adaptation of the 1967 Disney animated film. On the surface, it would seem like that goal was achieved.
Several of the main characters have returned, and have retained much of their personalities from the animated adaptation. Bagheera the panther (voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley) is stern, but nurturing, Baloo the bear (voiced by Bill Murray) is fun-loving and laid-back. The story is also boosted by the augmented roles of two characters: Raksha the mother wolf (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) getting significant screentime compared to her animated counterpart, and Kaa the rock python (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) brings a new, subtler and more insidious dimension to what was a secondary villain and largely played for comic relief in the 1967 movie.
But in many ways, this most recent adaptation seems to be more in line with Rudyard Kipling’s eponymous collection of short stories. The source material has been described as a fable and allegory, using anthropomorphism to comment on the political climate of his time.
Like Kipling’s writing, there’s nothing whimsical about the 2016 film, but there’s definitely the same amount of action and adventure. The Jungle Book is directed by Jon Favreau, whose filmography includes commercial and critical hits like Elf, Iron Man and Chef as well as critical duds, like Cowboys & Aliens and Iron Man 2. Well, “dud” might be too harsh a description, but the point here is that Favreau, as much as I personally appreciate his body of work, just isn’t very consistent when trying to find the right tone to tell a story. The Jungle Book tries to be many things, and ends up succeeding in only one.
That success is the breath-taking world that is completely created by computer animation. Not since 2009’s Avatar and 2012’s Life of Pi has computer animation generated such a truly believable yet fantastic setting. Movies like these are what gives meaning and purpose to viewing in IMAX 3D. Unlike most films in 3D, which are typically not as bright due to the conversion process, The Jungle Book is filled with some of the most beautiful creatures brought to the big screen. Shere Khan (voiced by the unmistakable Idris Elba) truly burns bright, while wolves, elephants, rhino and monkeys are all depicted with such detail that although you know they’re all fake, you can’t help but be drawn into their world.
Ironically, though it’s undoubtedly not his fault, it is newcomer Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, that seems the most out of place in the entire movie. As hard as he tries, he just cannot immerse himself sufficiently into this amazing jaw-dropping jungle, which for him still looks like a bunch of puppets in a studio lot.
However good it is as a visual spectacle, as an adaptation of the 1967 animated movie, The Jungle Book fails the most. Beyond the broadly consistent characterisation, there is very little of the liveliness and humour that made the original the classic it still is. Nothing drives the disconnect home more, than when songs that have charmed a generation, Baloo’s “The Bare Necessities” and King Louie’s “I Wan’na Be Like You”, feel like unnecessary diversions from the film rather than its heart and soul.
A big part of this come from the rather sinister turns several characters seem to have. While some, like Johansson’s perfect casting as a more insidious, threatening Kaa, are a welcome tweak (not to mention injecting a second woman’s presence in a largely male-dominated film), other changes are less appreciated. Although Bill Murray’s Baloo brings some much-needed humour to the film halfway through the story, one extended scene of Baloo and Mowgli (Neel Sethi) makes the bear seem downright manipulative, even cruel in his treatment of the boy.
The biggest misstep, in my opinion, was making King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken) a Gigantopithecus, instead of the orangutan from the animated series. The basis for this decision is apparently because orangutan are not native to the Indian subcontinent, but that seems like almost a silly consideration considering they chose to resurrect a long-extinct species instead of choosing an existing monkey species. Walken’s portrayal of Louie is also wasted – he is not the smooth-talking criminal mastermind from 1967, but is now a physically imposing threat that intimidates and strikes fear. It’s a hard pill to swallow, and you suddenly wonder if this has gotten a little too scary for the younger audience.
So perhaps the best way to appreciate this 3D extravaganza is to consider it what Disney’s 1967 movie could have been, had Walt Disney himself not stepped in to play a more active role in its creation. According to a historian Brian Sibley, the 60’s animation was the suggestion of Disney story writer Bill Peet, but Disney felt Peet’s initial adaptation of Kipling’s stories was too dark and sinister for a family film.
Perhaps appropriately, this year’s The Jungle Book is a largely sombre, dark and serious allegory about power and manipulation, with it’s light-hearted moments often feeling out of place at best and shoehorned in at worst. But that is, admittedly, from my perspective. As I mentioned earlier, the cinema I was in felt like a Bizarro world. There was sporadic laughter in scenes that just weren’t laugh out loud funny. And it wasn’t just one or two people. It seemed like many in the cinema hall I was in were enjoying themselves. I couldn’t understand it.
So clearly, despite a couple of frightening scenes and CGI animal-on-animal violence, there is no doubt that with the truly fantastic and groundbreaking 3D special effects, the young (and young-at-heart) will be truly immersed in an adventure like no other.
The Jungle Book opens tomorrow, 7th April in cinemas across the island. Interestingly, you’ll have to wait for another week to catch it in IMAX 3D, thanks to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.