Tuesday, May 31, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book was written by Justin Marks and directed by Jon Favreau. It's based— more or less— on Rudyard Kipling's stories of the same name.

Marks previously wrote Street Fighter: The Legend Of Chun-Li and... well, that's pretty much it, other than a few short subject films! He must have a hell of an agent to land a high-profile writing gig like The Jungle Book.

Favreau is prolific actor, writer and (uneven) director. Most of the films he helms tend to be big budget, effects-heavy spectacles. He previously directed Made, Elf (the only Will Ferrell movie I can stomach), Zathura, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Cowboys & Aliens and Chef.

The Jungle Book continues Disney's current trend of strip-mining its back catalog and pumping out live action retreads of its animated classics, such as Alice In Wonderland, Cinderella and the upcoming Beauty And The Beast. Apparently this strategy's working, as to date the film's grossed nearly $350 million against its $175 million budget.

Believe it or not this is Disney's third adaptation of The Jungle Book. There was the 1967 animated movie of course, starring the voices of Phil Harris and Sebastian Cabot. There was also a largely-forgotten live action version released back in 1994. It starred Jason Scott Lee as an adult Mowgli, who's reunited with the love of his life, follows her back to civilization, finds it's not to his liking and returns to the jungle.

Supposedly actor/motion capture performer Andy Serkis (of The Lord Of The Rings fame) is currently producing and directing his own live action version of The Jungle Book, for release in 2018. Another CGI Jungle Book? Coming so close on the heels of this one? Seems like a waste of time, effort and money to me. Is this story really that compelling that it needs to be adapted a whopping four times?

This version is a straight up remake of the 1967 animated feature, rather than an adaptation of the Kipling stories. How do I know this? Because Kaa the python is an enemy to Mowgli, and due to the presence of King Louie. In the book, Kaa is actually a Mowgli's friend and adviser, rather than an adversary who wants to eat him. And there is no King Louie in any of the stories— he was invented specifically for the 1967 cartoon.

Voice-over artists play an important part in any animated feature, but unfortunately the vocal performances in The Jungle Book is uneven at best. 
Some of the cast is perfect, such as Ben Kingsley as Bagheera and Lupita Nyong'o as Raksha. Scarlett Johansson even does does a surprisingly good job as Kaa the python. 

But then there's the terribly miscast Bill Murray as Baloo the bear, and the even more out of place Christopher Walken as King Louie. Neither are right for their parts, they stand out like sore thumbs and they make absolutely zero attempt at creating an actual character. I don't know if this was the actors' idea or Favreau's, but both Murray and Walken are basically playing themselves here. In fact Murray sounds like he may have recorded his lines in his car on the way to the golf course.

I've never been a fan of this sort of "stunt casting" in animation. If a celebrity turns in a real performance and creates an actual character— the way Mike Myers did in the Shrek films— that's perfectly fine. But I hate it when a celebrity just recites lines in their normal, everyday speaking voice. I end up spending most of the runtime trying to figure out who's doing what voice, and end up ignoring the plot. It's as if the studios believe that Bill Murray's voice is as much a box office draw as his actual presence, which is just plain silly.


The Plot:

The movie opens with Mowgli (played by newcomer Neel Sethi), a young human "man-cub," running a race with his wolf brothers deep in the Seoni jungle of India. As an infant, Mowgli was found by the black panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), who took him to a nearby wolf pack. Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o), a female wolf, raised Mowgli as her own cub. Lucky for Mowgli none of these deadly predators he lives with ever developed a taste for human flesh.

During the dry season, all the bodies of water disappear except for one, called Peace Rock. All the animals of the jungle honor an ancient truce to drink from Peace Rock in, er, peace. Mowgli uses a hollowed out piece of fruit to form a crude cup from which to drink. The other animals are wary of his human ingenuity, distrusting his "tricks." Just then the deadly tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) appears. He says humans are forbidden in the jungle, and demands Mowgli be handed over to him. Akela, the leader of the wolf pack, refuses to give up Mowgli, and insists that Shere Khan honor the truce. The tiger says he'll abide for now, but will be back for Mowgli when the rains come and the rivers flow again.

The wolves discuss the Mowgli situation, and it's decided it's too dangerous for him to stay. Sounds to me more like they just don't want any trouble for the local tiger, but whatever. Bagheera volunteers to escort Mowgli to the man village. Raksha and Mowgli share a tearful goodbye, as she tells him he'll always be her son. Say, that'd make a good trailer moment!

Mowgli and Bagheera set off, but are separated by a CGI buffalo stampede. Shere Khan appears again, and is about to pounce on Mowgli, when Bagheera fends him off. Mowgli runs into the jungle.

Shere Khan returns to Peace Rock and confronts the wolves. He kills Akela and appoints himself leader of the other animals. So I guess the Akela was the leader of the entire jungle, not just the wolf pack?

Mowgli wanders through the jungle alone, and comes across the huge python Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). She puts Mowgli into a trance with her hypnotic eyes, and infodumps his backstory to him, that she somehow knows. She says he came from the man village, and was just an infant when he and his father were attacked by Shere Khan. Mowgli's father used the "red flower," aka fire, to fight off the tiger. Mowgli's father blinded Shere Khan's left eye before the vicious tiger killed him. Kaa is about to eat Mowgli when Baloo the bear (voiced by a very miscast Bill Murray) saves him. 

Baloo takes Mowgli under his wing, and says he needs help gathering honey for his upcoming "hibernation." He talks Mowgli into climbing a dangerously high cliff to gather honey from bee hives that Baloo can't reach. Mowgli's stung a few times, and eventually uses his "tricks" to come up with bee-proof "armor." The two become fast friends and partners, and sing a very out of place song.

Bagheera catches up to Mowgli, who says he's helping Baloo prepare for his hibernation. Bagheera points out that bears don't hibernate in the jungle, and realizes Baloo's taking advantage of his "friend." He insists on completing his mission to escort Mowgli to the village. Mowgli refuses to go, saying he wants to stay with his new best friend Baloo. Bagheera tells Baloo that Shere Khan is after Mowgli, and he's not safe in the jungle. Baloo understands, and tells Mowgli to get lost, for his own sake. A dejected Mowgli runs off, and is soon captured by an army of monkeys.

The monkeys bring Mowgli to King Louie (voiced by an even more horrifically miscast Christopher Walken). You might think Louis is an orangutan, but you'd be wrong— he actually takes the time to specifically point out that he's a Gigantopithecus, whatever the hell that is. He tells Mowgli he wants the secret of the red flower, in order to rule the jungle. When Mowgli says he doesn't know how to make it, Louie flies into a rage. He tells Mowgli that his "father" Akela has been killed, and Bagheera knew about it.

Just then Bagheera and Baloo show up, and fight off the monkeys as Mowgli escapes. Louie chases after Mowgli, but his huge bulk causes his massive stone temple to collapse on top of him.

Mowgli's furious that Bagheera didn't tell him about Akela, and runs away yet again. He sees the man village, and notes it's full of "red flowers." He sneaks into a hut, steals a lit torch and runs back into the jungle with it, I guess to use the "red flower" against Shere Khan. As he runs, embers fly off the torch and ignite the dry jungle.

Mowgli returns to Peace Rock in minutes (even though it took him days to get from there to the man village) and confronts Shere Khan. The tiger tries to turn the other animals against the man-cub, pointing out that he's brought the forbidden red flower into the jungle. Bagheera and Baloo show up, and tell the tiger he'll have to go through them to get to Mowgli.

Shere Khan says "No problem" and attacks Baloo. Mowgli runs into the trees while the tiger is distracted. Shere Khan's about to kill Baloo, when the wolves attack and drive him off. 

As the fire rages through the jungle, Mowgli uses his "tricks" to set up an elaborate trap for Shere Khan high in a tree. The tiger climbs Mowgli's tree, and inches out onto a narrow branch. The branch snaps, Mowgli grabs a safety line and Shere Khan falls into the forest, er, I mean jungle fire far below. The elephants temporarily diverse the river to put out the fire.

Later we see Mowgli reunited with his wolf brothers, as Raksha has become the new leader of the pack. Baloo has chosen to live with the other animals, saying he could get used to this. 

• Whatever your feelings about the story, there's no denying that the movie is technically astonishing.

It looks for all the world as if it was filmed on location in a thick, lush jungle, but according to the filmmakers, every single frame of it was filmed indoors inside a small studio in downtown LA. There were a few practical props and such, but for the most part, the only real thing in the film was Neel Sethi as Mowgli.

Kudos to the thousands of animators, computer programmers and server farms that made it possible.

You know, we really need a new name for this kind of film. Calling it "live action" is a misnomer, as ninety five percent (or more!) of it was computer generated. "Live Animated," perhaps? "Realistic Cartoon?" "Green Screen Extravaganza?"

• This is hardly Disney's first foray into combining live action with animation. Song Of The South, The Three Caballeros, Mary Poppins, Bedknobs And Broomsticks and Pete's Dragon all did so, although they combined traditional cel animation with live action, rather than CGI.

• The late Garry Shandling voiced the character of Ikki the porcupine in the film. Unfortunately it was his last performance, as he unexpectedly died of a heart attack shortly before the movie premiered.

• The film takes place in the Seoni jungle of India, and as you might expect, many of the animals in the story are not found in that region. Part of this is due to the source material, as Kipling didn't much concern himself with accurate geography, and part is due to Hollywood assuming the audience is a bunch of mouth-breathing dullards who don't know any better.

Supposedly there really are wolves in India, and of the same species that lives in Canada and Northern America. Unfortunately they're not found in the jungle.

Orangutans are definitely not native to India, as they're only found in Borneo and Sumatra. The writer tried to smooth over this by saying Louie is a 
Gigantopithecus, a massive, orangutan-like ape that once lived in the jungles of China, Southeast Asia and India. Unfortunately Gigantopithecus has been extinct for nearly one hundred thousand years (!). I nobody told Louie about this.

Even as a kid I knew there were no bears in the jungle, at least not like the ones seen in the various film versions of The Jungle Book. There is one species, called the Sloth Bear, that lives in the jungles of India.

Unfortunately it bears little or no resemblance to Baloo, who's typically been depicted as a North American Brown Bear.

• It's never actually stated when the story takes place, but I'm assuming it's set during the period in which the book was written— the 1890s. There are times in the film when Mowgli speaks and acts like a modern child, which is kind of jarring. 

• Kipling's The Jungle Book, er, book was written as a collection of short fables rather than a straight narrative. As a result the screenplay moves in fits and starts, as Mowgli wanders from one setpiece to another. In fact the entire film is feels very episodic in nature you can practically see the chapter headings onscreen!

• I am not a fan of the musical numbers in the film. The 1967 animated version was chock full of peppy songs that are still known today, especially Phil Harris' Bare Necessities

Unfortunately, while the songs worked fine in the animated version, they feel jarringly out of place here. Favreau did his best to make his jungle feel real (barring the talking animals, of course). It doesn't feel like a world in which the characters would suddenly break out into song. 

And when they do sing, they do it in the most awkward, half-assed way possible, almost as if Favreau was apologizing for their presence. Either commit to the songs fully, or leave them out altogether.

The Jungle Book is Disney's latest "live action" remake of one of their classic animated films. It's technical brilliant, but somewhat lacking in substance and soul. The vocal work is very uneven, and the songs should have been left out completely. Kids will no doubt be mesmerized by it though. I give it a B.

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