Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Book Report

At some point after having watched this year's live-action update of Disney's The Jungle Book, the thought occurred to me: "was there really a point in doing a live-action version of The Jungle Book?" After all, aside from newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli, this new film actually isn't live action -- it's a bunch of actors recording their lines for animators to later complete the performances. The only different is the type of animation.

That's not to say that this new movie is without merit. For one, that change in animation method isn't nothing. There's a lot of great animal movement throughout, and mostly good modelling too. Occasionally, the lighting feels off, as though creatures aren't believably in a real space, but these moments are few and far between. Indeed, the most jarring aspect of the animation is that it's generally so realistic that it puts a flaw of the story itself right in your face: exactly what jungle is this that's populated with North American wolves and a brown bear?

The animation brings so much to the performances that it might have been easy to overlook the voice work, but solid casting staves off that problem. Most attention-grabbing is Bill Murray as Baloo and Christopher Walken as King Louie. But there's also Idris Elba giving great villain as the tiger Shere Khan, Ben Kingsley nobly voicing the panther Bagheera, Scarlett Johansson as the python Kaa (gender-swapped from the original film), and Lupita Nyong'o and Giancarlo Esposito as Mowgli's adoptive wolf parents.

The Jungle Book is an eclectic, meandering story. The connective tissue is a bit slow-paced at times, but the big scenes (which usually involve introducing a new character) generally work. Less effective is the movie's hesitation to go full musical; the remake cuts most of the original's songs and relegates another to the end credits, yet preserves "Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You." (But then, I suppose you have to let Bill Murray and Christopher Walken sing, if you can remotely justify it.) Also changed is the end of the story. Without getting too specific, it's a little odd that one of the few bittersweet endings from classic Disney now gets cleaned up.

Whatever flaws The Jungle Book may have, I still think it's an improvement over the rather dry original. That may not be particularly high praise, but to be more clear: you could do worse than give your time to this film. I'd give it a B-.

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