Movie Review: The Jungle Book
By Ben Gruchow
April 20, 2016
King Louie is an impressive creation, but he's overshadowed as we travel upwards in prominence. Bagheera and Baloo (Bill Murray) are true feats of effects engineering: the filmmakers realize that it would not do to contort distinctive feline and ursine features and tics out of whack to serve the story, so they've merely adjusted the habits of the characters to fit the expectations we have of them as a panther and mountain bear. They've executed the same improbable cross-breed with the eyes, always the most important aspect of digital flesh and blood: in their eyes we see deduction and induction matched by predatory instinct. The attention to minute detail here, bred from decades of exacting ethos by Disney animation, has us constantly paying attention whenever they're onscreen; I particularly liked the small detail of Bagheera panting after he and Baloo ascend a steep cliff.
They both pale next to Shere Khan. From his first appearance, the movie’s primary antagonist is a marvelous digital alchemy of feral physical reality and nightmarish abstraction. Nothing exemplifies this better than the manner of his introduction; atop a rock outcropping and backlit so harshly by the sun that we see nothing but a vague sliver of him at any one time, and then in shadow as he makes his way down to the water hole, the CGI is structured and moves in a way that seems to take up the entire screen while being only slightly larger than a standard Bengal tiger. Adding to it is Elba’s superb vocal performance, which mostly operates in a low, languid, coiled register that’s deeply villainous without ever tipping over into camp.
He’s the most flat-out frightening Disney villain since Judge Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Like that character, Khan has the power of righteousness motivating him; he believes that the man-cub is owed to him as a sacrifice, and that his actions are necessary to achieve peace. Even disregarding the fullness of the vocal performance and the character implications, though, just look at what’s onscreen. There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the film, involving Khan and a litter of wolf cubs and Mowgli’s adoptive mother, Raksha (played by Lupita Nyong’o). There is the recitation of a tale about the cuckoo bird, and a moment where a cub is momentarily prevented from returning to its mother, and we forget that we are seeing a screen full of CGI creations; we have fully accepted the entities on screen as living and breathing characters, instead of special effects. How often does that really happen?
The Jungle Book steps wrong in only two areas, both pretty minor. There are a couple of musical interludes, transparently replicated from the 1967 film for their cultural recognition, that are unnecessary to the story and don’t fit well into the rhythm of either set piece in which they appear. The second wrong step involves some questionable casting decisions. Scarlett Johannson has a confident screen presence, and she can certainly sell seduction by voice alone, but something feels off in her scene as Kaa the python. I’m not sure that the Kaa character has a gender, so it’s not like a male vocalist would necessarily have been any better. I think it’s that she doesn’t sound motivated, and the parts of the scene that work do so because the visual of the python does the heavy lifting.
But it’s Baloo that’s the movie’s bigger casting mistake; Murray is arguably a good fit for the character, but his voice is so immediately recognizable, and he’s playing so much to the Bill Murray Type, that his scenes took me out of the film and made me aware - generally for the only time - that I was watching a $175 million tentpole. These are ultimately small flubbings of what is otherwise an expertly orchestrated and rendered adventure movie. This is what can happen when a studio infamous for brand control and consistency crosses paths with a filmmaker who knows how to realize and interpret a world in a clear, honest, intelligent way. Unlike Mowgli, The Jungle Book knows what it is and how to achieve its purpose right from the start, and it’s a pleasure to see a story acquit itself so effortlessly.