**½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B+
starring Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Neel Sethi
screenplay by Justin Marks
directed by Jon Favreau
by Bill Chambers Confession: As a child, I used to fantasize about live-action versions of the Disney animated features--especially Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty, because of the design extremes in those films. Thinking back on this, I was at a loss to explain why my kid brain--which had a bottomless capacity to suspend disbelief--wanted to see a "real" purple-and-black dragon spit green flames at a "real" prince, or a "real" wooden boy sprout donkey ears, until earlier this week, when a piece of clickbait unveiling the "real" Lumière and Cogsworth from the upcoming Beauty and the Beast jogged my memory: ghoulish curiosity. "Ghoulish curiosity" is, I believe, the unspoken draw of this recent spate of live-action Disney remakes, starting with 2010's Alice in Wonderland, which doubled down by promising the Tim Burton rendition of that world. The reason Alice Through the Looking Glass tanked, Johnny Depp's recent toxicity notwithstanding, is that we've seen all the freaks in that tent; true fascination lies the way of Dumbo, another Tim Burton joint. (I have a pretty good idea of what the circus stuff will look like, but I'm dying to see that elephant fly.) Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book got us there via the truly perverse notion to remake one of Disney's animal-driven musicals in live-action. Of course it opened big ($103M, in friggin' April!), just like of course the RNC scored higher ratings than the DNC. But if the latter rewarded our cynical rubbernecking, Favreau transcended it.
Orphaned in the jungle as a baby, "man cub" Mowgli (12-year-old newcomer Neel Sethi) has been raised by stoic wolves Akela (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o) as one of their own. His wolf brothers and sisters are starting to outgrow and outpace him, though, and he's forbidden from doing any "tricks" with his opposable thumbs and human instincts that might level the playing field. Exploiting this widening gap between Mowgli and his adoptive family is fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), whose face bears the scars of man's tactical advantage over animals. He announces his intentions to kill Mowgli at the end of the season, before adulthood turns him dangerous, and that night, Mowgli pre-empts all debate by volunteering to set out for the man village, where he'll be safest, with guardian angel Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), a panther, as his escort. On the trail the next day, Shere Khan ambushes them, but Mowgli escapes, fleeing into episodic adventures that include a close brush with hungry python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), hijinks with lazy Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), and an audience with gigantopithecus King Louie (Christopher Walken) at his temple ruins. Back at home, Shere Khan supplants Akela as leader of the wolf pack, knowing the news of his demise will reach Mowgli soon enough and act as bait.
Although Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks cherry-pick the Rudyard Kipling stories for inspiration and viable unused material (back with a vengeance is Kipling's emphasis on "the red flower" (i.e., fire), the true jungle currency), make no mistake: this is not a reboot, but a photorealistic adaptation of the cartoon that preserves the anthropomorphism and at least two of the songs without striving to appease contemporary literalmindedness. As with Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, the shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark by enterprising teenagers, our anticipation of its next audacious, aesthetically incongruous recreation of an iconic beat is almost The Jungle Book's driving narrative force. Perhaps as a result, it moves rather more briskly than the sleepy original, though it does manage to retain some of the previous film's "hang-out movie" vibe (and will no doubt retain even more of it on repeat viewings as desensitization to the wonder kicks in), in part by keeping Shere Khan in a holding pattern. That's a departure, yes, but a shrewd one in that it gets the movie closer to the deliberate pacing of the original, precluding as it does a conventionally modern emphasis on conflict and suspense.
This is not to say The Jungle Book resists innovation. Hardly. For starters, the 1967 film's experiments in integrating live-action background elements are the equivalent of Jolson singing a few bars in The Jazz Singer compared to this next-level virtual reality. Even at their highest-achieving, The Hobbit movies are upmarket Robert Rodriguez, greenscreen vacuums that look entirely too democratized to rouse as spectacle. It's not just the animation that convinces in The Jungle Book but the compositing as well; Favreau has cleared several technical hurdles by mixing state-of-the-art digital tools with old-school smarts, like layering Sethi into the frame with lots of foreground detail (a lesson in selling depth that comes straight from Walt Disney's pioneering use of multiplane photography). Completely selling a false reality barring a few negligible seams in the early going, this is a landmark effects film, maybe the most unnerving one since Forrest Gump erased the idea of archival footage being trustworthy. The characterizations, too, are stronger, which is a question of sometimes embellishing the Disney template--Disney's desired Falstaff/Prince Hal dynamic for Baloo and Mowgli's relationship really shines through here (the Boar's Head Inn becomes Baloo's cave and honey his ale)--and at other times ignoring it altogether. (Silencing the elephants makes them instantly more majestic.) Kaa, King Louie (reconceived as an orang-utan King Kong), and Shere Khan are each considerably less benign in this incarnation: Rendered as real-world lifeforms, they no longer present any opportunity for whimsy. You wouldn't want a plushie of this film's Shere Khan.
Indeed, one of the movie's central charms is that it doesn't defang the animals, so to speak, in the act of anthropomorphizing them. Elba sinks his teeth into a delightful monologue about how Mowgli is like the baby cuckoo, drawing Raksha's precious attention away from her natural offspring; Shere Khan is trying to poison the young minds of Mowgli's pack and doing it with that George Sanders flair. Yet what makes his villainy so potent and hissable and even creepy within the scene is that the pups have unsentimentally accepted their father's vicious killer as the new alpha dog, because that's how nature works. Still, for all the movie's PG sophistication, I'm hesitant to say The Jungle Book is any less juvenile than its G-rated predecessor. The death of Akela, for instance, is a cliché Disney for once studiously avoided, namely, orphaning the main character. This Mowgli is orphaned twice, in fact--in a sad concession to today's appetite for backstory and motivation, Shere Khan is responsible for killing his father and stranding Mowgli in the jungle in the first place. In the '67 version, Shere Khan is a predator for predator's sake, and facing the music in their climactic confrontation is for Mowgli a sign of maturity. In the new film, Mowgli seeks vengeance against his tormentor. It's exciting, it's cool, but a sign of maturity it is decidedly not.
The filmmakers appear to have taken the well-publicized criticisms of Disney's grandniece too much to heart. (She claimed the message of his The Jungle Book is 'Stick with your own kind.' I hope I refuted that adequately in my 2014 review.) They've undone the animated film's ending--which Favreau cops to never liking in his Blu-ray commentary--so that instead of following a young lady into the man village, Mowgli sticks around to enjoy some more of those bare necessities with Baloo and co. It's certainly a happier send-off, but this is no longer a coming-of-age story, and I felt coddled. Whatever the message of the original, it's been replaced with one about Mowgli "bring[ing] all the jungle together for the first time"--a sop to critics of The Jungle Book '67's alleged eugenics but also a developmental dead-end for the character. (One that doesn't make much sense besides, given that a truce is in effect for denizens of the jungle over the course of the picture.) Though there is pathos here, it's front-loaded and dissipates following Mowgli and Raksha's initial parting, itself a triumph of human-CG interaction; the afterimage of the film is purely sensory, with little emotional grounding. I missed the melancholy. I worry for the generation about to be raised on Favreau's The Jungle Book, who will learn to expect few compromises in animation, in storytelling, in life. Dazzling as it is, the movie is a great leap forward for the medium that feels like a step back of sorts.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
By all accounts, The Jungle Book begs to be seen in 3-D (I missed its theatrical window), though for now there is only a 2-D Blu-ray release and it doesn't disappoint. The 1.85:1, 1080p presentation threw me for a loop because the TV commercials framed the movie at 2.35:1, but they did so to advertise the 3-D aspect by having objects jut into the black bars. Anyway, the transfer on this disc is spectacular and worthy, honouring the breathtaking detail of both the animation--a joint effort between effects houses MPC and Weta--and the raw footage of Mowgli, captured with the ARRI Alexa MT. The image may not be 3-D but deep chiaroscuro contrasts lend it dimension, and textures are no less tactile for being largely simulated. A brilliant though not garish palette puts the current washed-out Blu-ray of the original to shame, and if you note a three-strip intensity to the opening Disney "castle" logo, that's because it was shot with red, green, and blue filters on the lens to simulate Technicolor. It all looks stunning--and cinematic, to boot, with nothing like a digital patina to cheapen the painterly images, although a wisp of video noise or artifacting intrudes on the ground surface during a shot at 1:34:23.
The attendant 7.1 DTS-HD MA track is no slouch, either, thanks to a mix that lends scary new clarity to sound-effects record staples like rain and tiger roars--the latter shredding the speakers at exactly the right pants-wetting timbre. Needless to say, the subwoofer plumbs the depths, often abstractly but never to the point of fatigue. John Debney's lush if not entirely memorable score is in perfect balance against dialogue and SFX, cradling film and viewer alike with an impressive transparency. The demo moment, however, has to be Johansson's supernaturally seductive voice doing 360s around the viewer's head as Kaa encircles Mowgli. It gets, ahem, under the skin. Also on board, audio-wise, is the aforementioned feature-length yakker from the loquacious Favreau, who pauses to admire the film's visual complexity without seeming the slightest bit jaded yet. (Kudos to Disney for subtitling him for the deaf and hard of hearing.) He points out homages--sometimes they're to non-Disney movies (Shere Khan's entrance is a nod to A Man for All Seasons), sometimes they're merely oblique (yes, Mowgli picks up the cowbell in King Louie's lair as a tribute to Christopher Walken)--and paints a generally appetizing portrait of the challenging but harmonious production. I will say that a moment he highlights as one of his favourites--where Mowgli asks an unfamiliar critter, "What is your language?"--was one of my least, since it forces us to question the lack of barriers to communictaion elsewhere in the film. It's nice to see an intellectually curious Mowgli, though.
While Favreau mostly steers clear of wonk talk, the companion making-of doc "The Jungle Book Reimagined" (35 mins., HD) nevertheless elucidates some of the more unorthodox filmmaking techniques Favreau describes through plenty of well-chosen B-roll from the set. Framed by a roundtable that reunites Favreau, producer Brigham Taylor, and VFX supervisor Robert Legato months into the movie's post-theatrical life, providing them the much-needed perspective of distance, the piece incorporates comments from the voice cast (Walken likens King Louie, not inaptly, to Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now) and a cute bit with the venerable Robert Sherman, who revised the lyrics to "I Wan'na Be Like You" on the fly to account for King Louie's size upgrade. Little Nethi takes a backseat since he has the other featurette, "I Am Mowgli" (8 mins., HD), to himself. Plucked from the obscurity of a Bollywood dance class, he's charmingly unseasoned, referring to his loincloth as a "diaper" then noting the palpable chagrin of his offscreen handlers over this remark. I hope puberty and the industry are kind to him. The only other extra is "King Louie's Temple: Layer by Layer" (3 mins., HD), a before-and-after reel breaking down the titular sequence to the individual stages of completion. It's nerdy but sheepishly so, eschewing any annotation whatsoever; sink or swim. Cuing up with trailers for Rogue One and Zootopia, the platter comes bundled with DVD and digital copies of the film to meet everyone's viewing needs.