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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review: THE JUNGLE BOOK

Photo courtesy of Disney
Disney’s latest redux feature begins with a trivial chase/race through the jungle. It’s director Jon Favreau’s way of skipping over stodgier forms of table setting (Once upon…, book opening) and showing off the impressive visual effects you will now be entreated/subjected to. It’s glossy, pointless, and accordingly a perfect sample for everything else that is to come.

I read The Jungle Book stories so long ago, I remember nothing, but I’ve literally had to watch and transcribe the animated film a number of times. It’s a familiar story, that I’m rather familiar with, and the new version isn’t much different. The screenplay now hits the appropriate, guide-to-screenwriting beats that the original eschewed, but it still finds time to incorporate the old tangents. There are still detours to King Louie and Kaa and some almost musical numbers, but they don’t quite fit. I’m not a booster of the animated film (I still don’t get why Baloo and Mowgli are instant best friends), but those sequences made sense in that film’s lazy, loose style. In a boundary pushing adventure, they’re distractions. They’re also part of the film’s indecisive tone. One minute it’s a lighthearted buddy comedy, the next a heart-pounding adventure or a treacherous survival tale, or a musical, or a dangerous musical (The King Louie scene is weird).

Indeed, the special effects are off-the-charts. Animals and environments, for whatever reason, are things computers are crazy capable of recreating. The animals’ tiny tics and idiosyncratic movements are wonderful. It’s next level stuff and the 3D is integrated well. The voice work is great across the board. Bill Murray made a terrific badger, so no surprise he could be a bear. Unfortunately, there’s a sore thumb sticking out in the middle of every scene, and it’s the film’s only human. This is equal parts a Mowgli problem, a Neel Sethi problem, and an effects problem.

Sethi’s performance is not good, he’s not terrible or anything, but not good. This is also where the effects, great as they are, don’t help. He’s the only human on screen, surrounded by pixels. Even if he was a stellar/experienced performer, it’s still agonizingly apparent at all times that he’s acting against air. You can practically hear Favreau calling out, “Now turn, you’re scared, now run!” And try as the filmmakers might, the character of Mowgli is still rather annoying and terribly stupid (It’s fire num-nuts!).

I know I’m being harsh, but the movie is harmless and therefore marginally enjoyable. It’s a story that was already becoming dull and old-fashioned 50 years ago, and now it has a spiffy new paintjob. But everyone forgets that visual effects alone in big effects films are not why we’ve been wowed at the cinemas throughout the years. They need to come attached to new ideas or exciting characters or at the very least memorable set pieces. Eye candy walks a boring line.
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