While regarded as an animated classic, Disney’s first stab at adapting Rudyard Kipling’s children’s tale The Jungle Book is a deeply flawed film. Jon Favreau’s computer-animated reimagining unfortunately doesn’t take the time to fix these issues; instead, it’s guilty of the exact same crimes that plagued its inspiration. While The Jungle Book is unquestionably a grin-inducing experience, it’s further proof that impeccable visuals aren’t enough to single-handedly carry a movie.
The boldest move taken by Favreau, who is generally an uneven director, is to almost completely strip The Jungle Book of the musical elements that defined the original. Of course the two most iconic tunes are briefly included, though this rendition of “The Bare Necessities” isn’t particularly kind on the ears, but the rest have been cut. Most people remember the musical numbers from the 1967 feature for good reason: they were the meat of the film. Without them the barebones story of The Jungle Book is fully exposed, which significantly harms the middle portion of this adaptation. The story of Mowgli, a young boy raised by wolves in a sprawling jungle, is a simple one that doesn’t warrant well over an hour and a half of your time to tell.
Mowgli himself is a rather uninteresting character. His supposed struggles to find a place to belong are constantly undercut, with quick acceptance by every animal in the jungle bar the evil tiger Shere Khan. We keep being told how Mowgli doesn’t belong and needs to find his people. That he seems to fit in just fine stops his character arc from having any real emotional impact. Credit must be given to Neel Sethi, who is the only member of the cast not merely providing his voice. Acting alongside computer-created characters can be tough at the best of times, but Sethi pulls it off with ability beyond his years.
The Jungle Book kicks off at a relatively brisk pace, with Mowgli’s wolf family being issued a threat by the villainous tiger to rid themselves of the young man cub or face his wrath. Soon the child is on a quest to find his homeland with help from his friend/protector Bagheera, a black panther. Within thirty minutes the stakes are set up and the journey has begun; for the next hour or so almost nothing else substantial happens. There’s a tacked-on encounter with a great ape named King Louie, who is awkwardly voiced by Christopher Walken, but the lack of any meaningful story development is obvious without the catchy tunes to distract you.
Though Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), Mowgli, and the wolf pack are all rather bland characters, the big loveable bear Baloo doesn’t disappoint. Bill Murray has had a patchy past with animated characters (remember Garfield?) but he’s absolutely wonderful here. Baloo has the lion’s share of the film’s best lines and lights up the screen whenever he appears, and when he’s not around you’ll find yourself wishing he was. Baloo’s relationship with Mowgli is the most three-dimensional of the bunch as well; he starts off merely using the boy as a helper to collect honey, but eventually develops a sweet friendship with him.
Idris Elba voices the big bad Tiger that the whole jungle fears. Shere Khan is a suitably menacing foe, one that is likely to scare young’uns and maybe even a few full grown adults as well. Elba’s deep voice gives the villain a commanding presence, and it’s easy to understand why most animals retreat to shelter whenever he appears. Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa, a humongous python, has been billed as a sort of secondary villain, but features in one scene that isn’t exactly memorable save for its ridiculous narrative convenience.
The big talking point of The Jungle Book is its visuals. Jon Favreau has refused to call those who worked on the film “animators”, instead referring to them as “artists”. As such, the film is downright gorgeous throughout. There isn’t a strand of fur out of place, and each animal’s movement feels in line with their character. Whether its Baloo’s lazy stroll or Shere Khan’s fear-striking stride, there’s undeniable love poured into every frame of The Jungle Book. It’s a true testament to the quality of the film’s computer-generated world that it’s nearly possible to overlook the narrative shortcomings, because merely drinking in the visuals is such a treat.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few little blips and oddities that—due to the overall high quality of the CGI—stick out like a sore thumb. When Mowgli directly interacts with an animal, the illusion of a live-action child actor amongst a heard of computer-generated creatures is shattered for a few brief seconds. None of the voice cast did any form of motion capturing for the film, which does create a disconnect between the mouth speaking the lines and the words being spoken. Thankfully this is an infrequent occurrence, but when you notice it happen once you won’t be able to ignore it when it pops up.
The Jungle Book remake unfortunately neglects to fix the problems that the original film suffered from nearly half a century ago. The film has an impressive oil-painting quality to it and the cinematography itself is perhaps worth the price of admission. However, Bill Murray’s winning vocal performance and the beautiful visuals can only paper over the film’s plentiful issues, which are eventually laid bare and impossible to gloss over.