Don’t get me wrong, I love Christopher Walken and I love the way they use him as King Louie in the new Jungle Book movie. And in many ways his interpretation of “I Want To Be Like You” is one of the highlights of the film, but really, the did the whole let’s get him to sing bit in the live TV version of Peter Pan a couple of years back, and that really didn’t work, so I was surprised to see it happen here, too.
Of course, if that were the only thing wrong with this movie, we’d still have a really good film. Too bad it doesn’t work out that way.
Okay, let me be upfront about one thing right now. The animated Disney Jungle Book from 1967 is one of my all-time favorite animated films. Perhaps even one of my all-time favorites, period. But I tried to go into this version with a clear and open mind and not filter it through my love of that movie – I didn’t want to do a compare-and-contrast in my head because I knew that my love for the original would inevitably cause this one to fall short. And I think I would have succeeded at that pretty well if Jon Favreau, who directed this outing, hadn’t spent so much time calling back it’s predecessor, thus basically forcing today’s audience to look back while watching this one whether they wanted to or not.
And really that’s unfortunate, because this version has enough flaws of it’s own to look pretty bad even without the comparison.
In a way, it’s kind of hard to know where to begin with the “what’s wrong with this movie” list, but since we’ve got to start somewhere, I suppose I’ll just randomly begin with Neel Sethi as Mowgli. For about the first fifteen minutes or so, I was really hoping that there was going to be a scene that would skip forward a few years after introducing the set-up where we would get some kind of time-jump that would re-introduce an older version of the character with a different actor. Again, unfortunately, this doesn’t happen.
Now, I understand that acting largely against a green screen and having to interact with an entire rest of a cast that isn’t there is a challenge for even the most seasoned of actors, and I was willing to give Sethi a reasonable pass because of that, if only his interpretation of Mowgli had had something else to offer, which it doesn’t. Simply put, Sethi doesn’t have the chops yet to make this role work, nor does he have any kind of inherent charm that might make one overlook that.
As far as the aforementioned “rest of the cast”, I suppose we have to look at that two ways: the animated characters and the actors who voice them. As far as the voices go, this is one of the places where I have to praise the film. All of the choices are excellent, and they do an excellent job at inhabiting the various animal characters. Though again, i have to wonder why we’re once again subjected, like with Christopher Walken, to Bill Murray attempting to sing. Sure, we’ve heard him do his “mumble sing” bit before, and I understand that there was no way Disney could have released a new version of The Jungle Book without a call back to the animated version’s most popular song, but it would help if that version wasn’t Murray attempting to find the tune and Sethi screeching along.
As far as the animation of the animal characters, it just doesn’t work. Simply put, they’re too animated to be realistic, and too realistic to be animated. It’s a fine line that has to be walked, and The Jungle Book never seems to be able to decide which side of that line it wants to be on.
Not only that, but there are quite a few points in the movie where the integration between Mowgli, the animals, and the CGI backdrops is so bad it looks like old-school rear projection. This is especially egregious in two scenes, one a simple walk-and-talk between Mowgli and Bagheera, and the other a very important interaction between Mowgli and the elephant tribe, both of which were so badly done that they drew me completely out of the movie.
None of which is to say that The Jungle Book is a bad movie. It isn’t. I definitely like some of the plot choices that were made, and overall it is entertaining. It’s simply disappointing that it could have been so much better and simply isn’t. I have to say that my recommendation is to wait until the movie hits Redbox or one of the streaming services. As a matter if fact, it might even look better on a smaller screen where its flaws might not be so apparent.
Of course, wherever you watch it, be aware that you’ll still be confronted with Christopher Walken singing. There’s no screen small enough to eliminate that.