Thursday, June 16, 2016

Film Friday: The Jungle Book (2016)

Disney has been "re-imagining" their classic animated films as live action films of late. Most have done really well at the box office, though frankly, undeservedly so. As a general rule, they've been poor copies of the originals with a few nods to modern cynicism and washed out storytelling. The Jungle Book is better than most, but not by much. It is an enjoyable film, but it underscores the problems with modern Hollywood.


By and large, the Disney re-imaginings have followed the storylines of the original animated films. There are changes around the edges and new themes and angles added, but generally, these have been re-tellings of the same story. Jungle Book falls into that same category and it mostly follows the original story. The story begins by introducing Mowgli as a member of the wolf pack. There is a drought. The animals all gather around a disappearing watering hole and call a water truce. At that point, Shere Kahn (Idris Elba) appears and says he will kill Mowgli because the script calls for it.
The wolves decide that the only safe place for Mowgli is the human village. Bahgeera (Ben Kingsley) agrees to take him there. As he goes, Shere Kahn attacks and they get separated. This lets Mowgli run into Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and Baloo (Bill Murray). Baloo tricks Mowgli into helping him get some honey he cannot reach and them promises to let him live a life of leisure in the jungle. Meanwhile, Shere Khan has killed the leader of the wolf pack and basically promises to keep killing hostages until Mowgli is handed over to him.

Bahgeera finds Mowgli again. He and Baloo argue. In the meantime, Mowgli saves a baby elephant with his gadgets. Oh, did I mention that Mowgli is every Asian kid ever put on screen by Steven Spielberg? Yep, he makes gadgets as needed to serve the script. (Good thing he's not fat or he wouldn't be able to stop eating.) Anyhoo, Mowgli runs away when Baloo agrees that he will only be safe in the village. This leads to King Louie (Christopher Walken), a bizarrely oversized ape inappropriately played like a mobster. Eventually, there's a final fight with Shere Khan.
Why This Film Wasn't Better

Generally speaking, Jungle Book was a good film. It held my attention and I didn't feel like I'd wasted my time or money. I do wonder though if I would have enjoyed it as much if I didn't have the original to pre-excite me about the film? I wonder this because throughout the movie I found myself most excited as I waited in anticipation to see how they would handle the introduction of the next iconic character. Watching the scenes themselves wasn't as interesting. So I wonder if I did not have a pre-love of the film coming in, would I have been as interested in this film? I'm not sure. One thing I do know, however, is that this film handicapped itself with a number of typical modern Hollywood mistakes.

The first mistake was the desire to fill every role with a famous actor: Elba, Walken, Murray, Johansson, Kingsley, etc. This has become par for the course in Hollywood because they think this will bring fans of the actors into the film. Unfortunately, few named actors are any good at voice work. And when you hire them to play themselves, as they did with Walken, you get some awful moments.
The problem here, at a fundamental level, was that many of the voices never fit. Elba and Kingsley were fine. Murray lacked the bass to play a giant bear and came across more as Garfield (a character his voice suited much more appropriately). Even without knowing the original Baloo as a comparison, Murray's Baloo voice was too small and too weak. Johansson was a mistake too. Now, I don't care that they made Kaa a woman, but they definitely picked the wrong woman. First of all, let's be honest: women in Hollywood are so interchangeable that there was no point in attaching a famous name to the voice. Her voice, like a bevy of other blonde T&A models, simply lacks interest, character or gravitas. It was entirely too bland to represent a giant, hypnotic python. For that, the voice needed to be more unsettlingly sweet. It needed a layer of menace. It needed an actress who could add those qualities to her voice, i.e. a genuine voice actress.

The real crime though was King Louie. The original King Louie is an amazing character. He's an insane-ish ape who has surrounded himself with fools so he can play the king who would be man. Voiced by the incomparable Louie Prima, he stand unique in the world of cartoon villains as a complex character who wants something so simple, yet so impossible, and wrongly thinks Mowgli can give it to him. Walken loses all of that subtlety, as well as Louie's charm. He plays Louie as if he were the Godfather, only with Walken's semi-retarded speaking style. This doesn't fit the jungle, or the movie, or the character.
None of these mistakes kill the movie, though Louie comes close, but they detract. Louie sucks. Baloo isn't all he should be. Kaa becomes forgettable.

The film does an amazing job with CGI, by the way. All of the landscapes are CGI and you'll never be able to tell. The sets are gorgeous and pull you into the jungle in a fantastic way. The only real flaw is again King Louis. His was made too large to make sense in this world.

The other problem is character. Character remains a problem for modern Hollywood, as again seen in this film. In the animated film, Shere Khan is pure menace with class, always acting with reason. Baloo is a true, loyal friend who just happens to be irresponsible when it comes to life. Bahgeera is a loyal friend, but a worrier. Louie we've already discussed. Kaa is a menacing villain, but a coward. And Mowgli... Mowgli really is the main character. The story is about him meeting these characters as he tries to run away from his fear so he can remain in childhood forever. He is eventually forced to face his fears, to grow up, and to become a man. This is symbolized in the end when Mowgli goes to the man village of his own accord to be with the girl.
The remake lost most of that. In this film, Shere Khan is menace for the sake of menace. His motivation in hating Mowgli is messy and confused. It's implied that it's part sport, part fear of Mowgli getting fire, and part revenge for an injury Shere Khan suffered while killing Mowgli's father. Baloo is Garfield... a snarky reluctant hero. Kaa is a plot point. And Mowgli... well, Mowgli's just passing through the film as we watch the other characters do their thing. He's not looking to grow up. He's not running from any fear. In fact, he's not afraid of Shere Khan at all. He's not looking to grow up or become a man either, and he doesn't leave for the village at the end -- he remains perpetually a child in the jungle. What drives his character eventually is revenge as he learns that Shere Khan killed his father... because every event in a film must be tightly connected to the main character these days. Heaven help you if the final fight of the film doesn't sprout from the seeds of cosmic destiny.

Hollywood has lost the ability to tell a story that can be universally understood. A boy running from his fears is universally understood. A boy becoming a man is universally understood. The struggle between the worrier and the irresponsible is universally understood. Villains who act out of self-preservation (Kaa), fear (Khan), and jealousy (Louie) are understood. These are all things each of us experiences in our lives and things we instantly recognize and understand. But this film has none of those. This film replaces all of that with a standard revenge film and a series of set pieces.

That's why even though this wasn't a bad film, it wasn't a great film either and it certainly wasn't anywhere near the level of the original.


tryanmax said...

That closing paragraph helps to explain the obsession with identity in Hollywood. If you can't tell a universal story, of course the only way to identify with a character is if that character is already very much like you.

I have not seen this movie, but my folks took my daughter who has autism to see it. She really liked the monkeys.

Anonymous said...

Agree. Visually impressive, but lacking in the charm of the original. Musical numbers fell almost as flat as a William Shatner album. Some scenes were a little to intense for my 5-year old daughter. ("What happened to the daddy wolf?")

Anyone out there ever read the Kipling originals?

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I liked the monkeys, but not King Louie.

All told, I thought it was a good film, but not a memorable or great film in any way.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, The songs were flat, to say the least.

I did read Kipling's originals. It was a very good books, but not at all like the Disney movie. It's more of a Tales of the Indian Jungle.

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