The Jungle Book (2016)
Director: Jon Favreau / Script: Justin Marks (from R. Kipling’s book) / Editing: Mark Livolsi & Adam Gerstel / DP: Bill Pope
Cast: Neel Sethi / Bill Murray / Ben Kingsley / Idris Elba / Lupita Nyong’o / Scarlett Johanssen / Giancarlo Esposito / Christopher Walken / Garry Shandling
The Bare Necessity…
Walt Disney’s last project, was his take on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and since its release in 1967, this version has come to shape our culture’s view of the original material. ‘Disneyfication’ has brought generations of new fans to its characters, yet how many even know – or care – that it was written by an Englishman living in self-imposed exile in the USA, who was harking back to an idyllic childhood spent in the Indian Raj?
Kipling’s original book is an anthology of sorts, comprising numerous short stories and poems and not a single narrative, as commonly imagined. Walt overcame this problem, by cherry-picking what he and his team felt were the strongest tales and weaving them around Mowgli; the ‘man-cub’ foundling, adopted by the wolf pack. This led to the introduction of King Louie as an antagonistic comic-relief, to round-out a story dominated by Mowgli’s ongoing conflict with the tiger Shere Khan. Throw-in some killer songs from the Sherman brothers and Walt had lightning-in-a-bottle, that would sparkle for the next fifty years…
That is, until the Disney Animation Studio finally, FINALLY came to a reckoning under its new ‘Chief Creative Officer’, John Lasseter. Here was a man who had worked as an animator at the studio, before the project he was then working on was cancelled. He duly became the first employee at a fledgling Pixar and when Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, Lasseter returned to the fold after a break of over twenty years. Except now, he was armed with the power to ‘green-light’ new projects. It’s an almost Shakespearean story arc that might make for a good movie in its own right someday (especially if we consider his recent fall from grace due to ‘inappropriate hugs’).
As for the ‘reckoning’, I think it’s this: the era of traditional ‘cel’ animation, dominating all others was long over by the time of Lasseter’s return. Unsurprisingly (and un-ironically) digital technology had won-out – largely thanks to Pixar’s own efforts. Lasseter sanctioned a brief resurgence with The Princess and the Frog (2009), but it was a conscious nod to the past, rather than a marker for the future. Tellingly, in the nine years since, there have been no other cel-shaded animated features produced in-house.
Technology has now reached the point, where anything is now possible. I’m sure you could now digitally recreate the old 24-frames-per-second, hand-tinted style, so the only question facing a director today is this: when there’s NO technical limit to what can be achieved, do you have the imagination to fill that blank canvas? It’s the same argument I made in criticising the oft-misfiring Finding Dory (2016).
So. Let’s put ourselves into the mind of a Disney executive, sometime during early 2013. The original movie’s Fiftieth Anniversary arrives in four short years and we’ve been asked to ‘come up with something’ to honour its memory. Our first job? Forget the live action version we released in ‘94 (no-one else remembers it, so why should we?) Oh, and then there was that straight-to-DVD ‘sequel’ we did in 2003. Err… Okay. Reset.
Consider our audience. ‘Kids’ in 2013 have been raised on HD video-games and CGI movies. They’re not interested in slow-paced, cel animation, right? Worse than that, what about all those corny songs that their parents played incessantly in the car, in the hope their offspring might, you know, singalong to?! Turned out that only old Mum & Dad did the singing, while the kids stared at their ‘phones and tried to look ironic and/or embarrassed.
So it was, that with four years to go, producer Brigham Taylor had the bright idea of ‘re-imagining’ The Jungle Book, as a wholly CGI picture, with Mowgli the only ‘real thing’ on-screen. He was no doubt inspired by Ang Lee’s triumphant adaptation of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi (2012) and, with the collaboration of director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks involved, things started gelling for the project: it had momentum.
Possibly, because it was exploring new ground for Disney: a production wholly reliant on motion-capture for its principals, that would seamlessly blend with pitch-perfect CG environments and virtual ‘sets’ taking inspiration from Indian locations? The Jungle Book was a step-beyond even the then-standard CGI animations appearing under the Disney Animation banner. It was as if Ang Lee had shown the way forward with Pi, giving confidence to more conservative studios – like Disney – to follow in his wake. Pictures such as Frozen (2013) and Big Hero 6 (2014) were in-production at the time but, not wishing to undermine the efforts of these dedicated teams, Jungle Book would end-up being released as a regular ‘Walt Disney Pictures’ feature. There’d be no link to the old guard, other than the picture’s theme, characters & title. Then again, one only has to recall Frozen’s box-office success, to see the truth in William Goldman’s assertion that “nobody knows anything” about the movie business. You just have to find the script, a good director and get it made within a budget. Everything else, is someone else’s problem…
Screenwriter Marks re-tooled Disney’s original, but made more of Shere Khan’s threat and turned King Louie into something less, well, cuddly. Inspired casting (of Christopher Walken, no less) gave extra heft to Louie’s reinvention as a ‘Gigantopithecus’. It’s an interpretation of a truly ‘Great Ape’, that convincingly holds sway as ‘King of the Swingers’.
Overall, the technical accomplishment of the picture is beyond reproach. Favreau more than met our expectations as a sceptical audience. The level of depth, clarity and vivacity of the world he and his talented team brought to the screen, is immersive and credible: our suspicion of disbelief, total. Some scenes however, particularly those featuring Mowgli and Baloo in the river, look ‘artificial’, with their perfect (and perfectly placed) flowers and lighting, but they stand-out, only because for much else of the picture, the world looks so weathered and is lit – and designed – so sensitively.
Neel Sethi was a great find as Mowgli; he brought a kooky playfulness to the role, that was enhanced by on-set interaction with the ‘blue-screen puppeteers’, whose efforts would be ‘painted out’ by overlaid CGI. There have been so many CGI-heavy films released, where actors struggle to emote to a ‘ping-pong ball on a broom handle’ (I’m looking at you, Phantom Menace) but, as the technology matures, its intrusiveness will fade, unlocking more reactive and ‘true’ performances from the actors. Talking of actors, the voice talent assembled for this picture was of the highest calibre, with not a duff note from any of them.
Another new approach, came with the film’s score, in particular its treatment of the Sherman’s songs. Having made a conscious decision to move on from a fully-scored approach, Favreau still wanted some reference to the originals. In the end, he found two spots. The first, ‘Bear Necessities’ was given a free-form vocal by Bill Murray over a lively ragtime combo. Walken rifts as only he can, through ‘I Wanna Be Like You’, in a delivery that stripped-back all the sass present in Louis Prima’s original (a performer who, lest we forget, inspired the character’s styling in the first place). Walken’s stylings left me thinking he’d overdone the Benadryl.
No, the real problems I have with this Jungle Book, all revolve around its thin story. We’re all cine-literate now. We watch this unfold and note its careworn, familiar themes and its debt to both the Disney canon and the wider cinema. True, those coming to the story for the first time won’t know any of this, but their parents might be heard groaning at the redemptive arc, the vanquish of a foe by familiar means and so on.
As the only credited screenwriter, it falls on Marks’ shoulders, though I’m 100% sure he’s not wholly to blame. By including everything from the ‘67 film AND ramping-up strands such as Louie, everything feels rushed; clipped, to fit a hundred-minute running time (the optimum attention span for its intended audience). Insufficient space is given to build-out inter-character relationships and our reasons for caring for them. This viewer hankers after a longer running time, that would allow the various strands room to breathe…
Alas, Disney squeezed this into the straight-jacket of a kids movie and snuffed-it out in the process. As if to acknowledge the problem (and following unexpectedly strong business), a sequel was quickly announced, though this was postponed as Favreau switched into a reimagining of The Lion King (this, following the dazzling returns of 2017’s Beauty and the Beast: what’s going on? Is the creative cupboard that bare?).
We’ve seen all this before. We just haven’t seen this before.
Gosh, I wanna be like you. I’m hitching a wagon to your star!