Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Neel Sethi, Scarlet Johansson, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Giancarlo Esposito, Lupita Nyong’o, Christopher Walken
Screenplay: Justin Marks (based on the story by Rudyard Kipling)
Released: April 15, 2016
I had no interest in seeing Disney’s latest live actioning of their classic cartoons. I loved the original The Jungle Book. I didn’t need this. Then I watched and listened to Scarlett Johansson wind her way into little Mowgli’s mind—as well as my own—inviting us to trust in her hypnotic promisessssss.
Suddenly, I was all about this movie. How could I not be? Just look at that delicious cast:
(Photos by Sarah Dunn for Disney)
With stunning visuals and just enough of the bare necessities, it was everything I needed, and I knew my kids were going to be excited to see it too. So, without waiting for my usual review of everyone else’s reviews, my family and I plunged into the theatre on opening night all shut-up-and-take-my-money. We were gonna watch this movie and we were gonna love it.
I was so wrong.
The novelty wore off somewhere around the fifteen minute mark when I started to formulate the conclusion that no, it was not the poor acoustics in my little home town theatre. The voice acting really was not good. I did not come to this conclusion easily. In fact, I struggled with it for much of the film, because how could I say such a thing about this cast? How could I say such a thing about Idris Elba!? It took me a while, but I eventually I came to terms with the fact that I would have preferred if no one had spoken in this movie at all—and when they sang … ugh … but more on that later. Because when they did speak, I found the dialogue to be stunted and the interactions to be so very superficial. Johnansson’s scene was the only exception, until her dialogue abruptly ended, and the character disappeared shortly after. Bill Murray’s
Garfield Baloo had his moments, finally getting the audience laughing and interested when he showed up about half way in, but his performance, like the others, seemed to be very disconnected from the animals themselves.
The animals, as you can see from the images above and the footage in the trailers, are incredible with stunningly impressive and expressive animation that just doesn’t quite match up with the effort put in by such a powerful cast of actors. Which is why, as I said, I would have preferred if the film was free of such cowbell (I see what you did there, movie). This would have strengthened the performance of Neel Sethi as Mowgli. Sethi clearly tried his best, but his acting looked exactly like what it was: a boy memorizing a script. When he simply gets to go about his man-cub business in the jungle and not talk, he is great.
Part of my excitement prior to the release of the film also involved the changes to the animals. Some of them appear to be much larger than the previous Disney incarnations or the source material by Rudyard Kipling. This seems to be both a reflection of the Jon Favreau’s choice as the director to let the audience view the world at Mowgli’s eye level, as well as a desire to make things a little scarier.
This is most notable with Kaa and King Louie. My kids are fascinated by titanoboa after watching a documentary about the prehistoric monster snake, so I wasn’t too worried about them being scared by Kaa’s increased size. However, the revelation that King Louie would now be a gigantopithicus—a prehistoric giant ape native to India, unlike the orangutan that was added to Disney’s original film—spawned some interesting conversation with fellow WWAC staffers who confessed their deep-seated fear of the character, despite their childhood love of the 1967 film. While I simply enjoyed singing and dancing along to his song, “I Wanna Be Like You,” they were taken by the insidious nature of a character that insinuates himself with Mowgli with the promise of friendship in exchange for “man’s red flower.” And he does so, in song. What could be evil about that?
King Louie also presents an issue, because the original portrayal was steeped in negative racial coding. The character (who does not appear at all in Rudyard Kipling’s book upon which these films are based), was created by Disney, who originally wanted Louis Armstrong to voice him. They switched to Italian jazz singer Louis Prima, to avoid controversy, but the song itself still strongly alludes to the concept of Black people being viewed and viewing themselves as less than human. In 1967, Mowgli quickly falls for Louie’s musical charm.
In 2016, there’s no such opportunity for Sethi’s Mowgli to be tricked by a giant Christopher Walken. Even when he starts singing the catchy tune, at which point my desire for the characters to stop letting words come out of their CGI mouths was at its peak. At this point, I wasn’t analyzing the negative racial connotations of the song or worrying about my kids’ potential nightmares. I just wanted it to stop and my face looked a lot like this:
This was after already cringing through Murray’s rendition of “The Bare Necessities,” another beloved song from the 1967 classic. And there’s the real problem with this film. It can’t decide what it wants to be. Is it a live action reboot of the cartoon? Or is it a more serious take on the Kipling story that isn’t afraid to let Shere Khan really dig his teeth in? Is it trying to be funny, what with the late Garry Shandling’s prickly cameos as a porcupine? In the trailer, when Johansson turns the last few words of her dialogue into the melody of Kaa’s famous song, or when Baloo is heard humming “The Bare Necessities,” it was a nice touch. A nice homage. But I’m not sure if that was what this film was trying to be either.
And the worst part is that I couldn’t filter any of my discomfort and frustration through my children. Allowing myself to see a movie through their eyes lets me enjoy the moment before I go home and analyze what sometimes turns out to be glaring problems (looking at you Age of Ultron). But I couldn’t do so here because, outside of the action sequences, my kids were bored.
It’s obvious that Disney is all about raiding its vault of cartoon classics to bring us more live action versions of these films. Pete’s Dragon is on the way, a story which has a special place in my husband’s heart, but I fear his heart will be broken if this trend continues. Peter Pan has been announced. Beauty and the Beast will be a real thing in 2017. I guess Disney’s logic is that new adaptations bring these stories to a new audience—even though that audience is still watching the original cartoons and lining Disney’s pockets just fine with princess purchases—but it would be great if these stories actually told something new, like Maleficent did. Instead of wasting this excellent cast on retelling Mowgli’s story, why not give us something with a whole lot more bite—and a lot more Idris Elba.