The Jungle Book awkwardly mixes outstanding CGI with a bland Disney script
Since its animated adaptation in 1967, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book has been one of the most popular children’s stories of a generation. Despite some extraordinary CGI and a talented voice cast, Jon Favreau’s 2016 update can’t help but feel like a pointless retelling.
As Mowgli, the adorable ‘man-cub’ raised by wolves and cast out by the evil tiger Shere Khan, Neel Sethi tries his best, but he struggles to convince as either emotional orphan or brave cub. It isn’t the worst child acting you’ll see, but he’s not strong enough to carry the film. Luckily, Favreau has an excellent supporting cast to work with, and most do fine work. As Mowgli’s black panther protector, Ben Kingsley utilises his stern voice to powerful effect, injecting even the silliest scene with dignity. Every good Disney film needs a good villain, and The Jungle Book’s best scenes belong to Shere Khan, voiced with appropriate menace by Idris Elba in one of the scariest voice performances in a children’s film.
However, some of the supporting cast feel short changed by the thin plotting. As Mowgli’s parents, both Lupita Nyong’O and Giancarlo Esposito are terrific, yet their screen time amounts to less than ten minutes. Christopher Walken gets similarly short screen time as King Louie, impressively reimagined as a giant ape. Even two of the best voice actors, Bill Murray as the lazy Baloo and Scarlett Johansson as the sinister Kaa, are given little to do by the script. Murray retreads his Garfield schtick before suddenly becoming a hero in the final reel, while Johansson is barely more than a cameo.
There’s a strange contradiction lying at the heart of The Jungle Book; the visuals are so painstakingly realistic that they jar with the Disney-friendly film. CGI has come on leaps and bounds in the last few years, and The Jungle Book might have the most impressive visuals since Gravity nearly three years ago, or Life of Pi before that. Every exotic landscape and animal looks stunningly lifelike, to the point of making the more family-orientated jokes feel inappropriate. For every gorgeously animated sequence like the fate of Mowgli’s father, there’s a sing-along song awkwardly shoehorned in.
No film as gorgeously realised and excellent performed as The Jungle Book can be called lazy. Despite a weak leading performance, the talented supporting cast and outstanding CGI keep the film very watchable. However, it still feels like a missed opportunity. Jon Favreau could have made a bold, beautiful, engrossing family film; instead, he played it safe with an emphasis on simple plotting and childish comedy over genuine thrills.
By Harry J. Ford
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