|Mowgli (Neel Sethi) and Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray) in Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book.|
I don’t understand Hollywood’s obsession with realism. I mean, I understand it mechanically – as our capacity to create more detailed visual effects grows with technology, so does our desire to push the envelope and chase that ethereal “photo-realistic” carrot – but realism in film is so often employed with little regard for the tone, style, or intent of a particular story. The examples are far too numerous to name, but it’s everywhere if you pay attention. (This obsession is shared by the gaming industry, too, whose foamy-mouthed quest for ever more ridiculously detailed visuals has been leaving smart and satisfying game design in the dust for decades.) Jon Favreau’s mega-budget amalgamation of Disney’s 1967 animated Jungle Book feature and the original writings of Rudyard Kipling was immediately off-putting for this reason: this is a fairy tale, heavy on whimsy and light on subtext, about a boy raised by wolves who is mentored by a panther and sings with a bear. Why did it need to look so realistic? Why did we need another version of this story with Avatar-esque visual fidelity and what seems like a tenth of the style or charm? You painstakingly animate an incredibly convincing CGI jungle cat and then manipulate his mouth to match Ben Kingsley’s voice work and, instead of being wowed by the verisimilitude, my brain plummets straight into the uncanny valley. Did we learn nothing from Babe?
I suppose all the more kudos are due to Favreau and his band of intrepid visual effects artists, because his Jungle Book – while never shrugging off the weird tonal clash between the realism of the visuals and the whimsy of the story – is engrossing, charming, and utterly gorgeous. I frequently forgot that I was looking at a young actor (Neel Sethi) clambering around on a green-screen sound stage; the computer-generated flora and the fauna that occupy it are that instantly convincing, and Sethi, who plays Mowgli with perfectly charismatic precociousness, plays off his CGI counterparts with natural ease. The Jungle Book, more than any film I’ve ever seen (yes, including Avatar), deserves to be seen in 3D – Favreau uses it far more to add depth to the frame and fill his environments with detail and life than to indulge in gimmicks and have things poke through the fourth wall at you. The illusion, as tenuous as it might seem from the outside, is rarely shattered while you’re in the theatre. It’s a remarkable achievement in technical effects.
But no amount of technical achievement would make up for a lack of story or interesting characters, and thankfully it appears as much time was spent on the screenplay by Justin Marks as on the visual effects. This Jungle Book, unlike the animated original, focuses more on the relationships between the different “peoples” of the jungle (which is so huge and varied it seems to span the entire world) – whether it’s the wolf pack, led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Mowgli’s foster mother, Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), the enigmatic elephants, who are treated with reverence as the creators of the jungle, or the solitary Shere Khan (Idris Elba), whose vendetta against mankind is reflected in his hatred of the man-cub. Those expecting a similarly poetic ending to Mowgli’s search for belonging as the one from ’67 – where all the poking and prodding in the world from Bagheera and Baloo can’t convince Mowgli to join his own kind as quickly and easily as a glimpse of a human girl, carrying a water jug on her head – might be disappointed, as this Jungle Book treats mankind as an outsider to be feared and hated, and prefers to have Mowgli find a purpose in the jungle rather than kick him out of it entirely. Though the more serious scenes (mostly the ones featuring Shere Khan or King Louie the “gigantopithecus” (Christopher Walken), who is a straight-up murderous villain in this incarnation) tend to make for awkward transitions into the silly, lighthearted Baloo stuff, the script is engaging throughout, and finds ways to make room for genuinely affecting moments, like the way the noble and stuffy Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) insists that Mowgli join him in bowing to the elephants as they pass, or the way Mowgli asks a weird marmoset-like creature if it has a language, or the “Law of the Jungle” frequently recited by the wolf pack, which emphasizes the importance of unity and togetherness, and becomes a pivotal character motivator for multiple characters including Mowgli, Raksha, and even Baloo (Bill Murray).
The voice work by the cast is stellar across the board, with special commendations for Murray, Elba, and Kingsley, who seem so tailor-made for these characters that I couldn’t even bring the original cast’s voices to mind afterward. Scarlett Johansson makes a brief appearance as the seductive boa constrictor Kaa, which is an interesting and welcome gender-swap (especially considering that Sterling Holloway’s performance as the original untrustworthy serpent was just a slightly more evil variation of his Winnie the Pooh), and the effect used to indicate her hypnotic gaze was wonderful and, yes, even kind of realistic (it looked a bit like the flashing colour changes of an octopus’ skin). That’s a nice microcosm of the entire film’s visual style: Favreau manages to invest enough unrealism, so to speak, into his realistic visuals so that the illusion is preserved, but the film is still recognizable as a fantasy. It’s an incredibly fine line that he sometimes trips over – Bagheera’s mouth moving never looked a hundred percent for me, but Baloo’s sure did – but he comes so close as to make it a non-issue.
However, I never did quite get over those tonal shifts, which never stopped being jarring. Cutting from Shere Khan intimidating the wolf pack to Bill Murray singing a modified version of “Bare Necessities” felt wrong, and I don’t think it was an issue with editing or pacing, I think it was an issue of general tone. John Debney’s excellent score, which hints at familiar songs from the animated film, was enough. I was still getting over these hyper-realistic animals talking to this human boy, so having them burst into song was shocking and pulled me out of the experience. King Louie should not have sung “I Wanna Be Like You,” and not just because Walken can’t hold a candle to Louis Prima, but because he was also an imposing, dangerous villain. If I had a major gripe with the film, it was the inclusion of these musical numbers, which feel wholly out of place in this realistic fantasy.
Overall, though, it’s hard not to recommend The Jungle Book, because despite its weird unbalanced elements, it’s a captivating and entertaining film, that trades in well-written characters and astounding visuals that make exorbitant IMAX 3D prices feel worth it. It’s very much a Disney experience: highly polished, entertaining, and a bit more like a theme-park ride than a story told with depth. But I think there’s a place for films like that in our cinemas, especially when they’re this good.
– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.