Disney continues on their trip down nostalgia road, in bringing one of their most celebrated releases into the realms of live action CG. But has this jungle-gamble paid off?
Motion-capture and CG technology have been used to bring the beloved story to life once again, with Neel Sethi playing the role of Mowgli – the young boy found lost in the jungle and taken in by a pack of wolves. He has grown to live amongst them even though his appearance as a “man-cub” leaves other animals either worried or anxious. But the Tiger Sheer Khan (Idris Elba) is taking none of this, and won’t stop until he sees Mowgli dead. The young boy must find a new home, and so sets out on an unknown journey meeting many critters along the dark path.
When I saw the teaser poster for this released online, it gave me some hope that they were going to nail the visual design of both the novel, and animated film. And so they have, this is a captivating film to behold and especially on the big screen. The ungle landscape isn’t just big trees, but wildly varying in vegetation, land terrain, and mood. The bright, open areas have more of a sense of security and home to them, wheras the centre of the jungle is beset by shadows and unknown sounds. It all plays excellently in developing tone and atmosphere, the locations really are a character in their own right.
My second though on seeing the poster was an immediate worry that the movie would get stuck in the Uncanny Valley – with the CG looking real, but feeling fake. Admittedly it does take about ten minutes for your brain to settle upon the style of effects being passed, but then you click onto the rails and all is well. Computer effects have come a hell of a long way in the past five years, and this is a stand-out example of how they can create some breathe-taking scenes, while also adding an artistic style to the production. The wolf pack including the mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) look startlingly realistic. The movements feel genuine, and even the hair looks fantastic. The same goes for the Panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), and is a great example of how every character and animal type has their own specific movements that set them apart. It may sound obvious, but seeing it play on the screen has a big impact on selling you on the sequences and characters.
You might be noticing that some big-ass names have been placed on voice-acting duty, Disney really dished out on the stars. Other very notable mentions include Scarlett Johansson as the Cobra Kaa, Christopher Walken as King Louie, and Bill Murray as Baloo. Kaa has one small scene, but one which is full of wonderfully dark and deceptive atmosphere, where Johansson delivers something of a wonderful performance. Baloo plays one of the larger roles in the story’s progression and plot, and while his introduction is okay, he did grow on me as things went along. It can be safely said that the talent wasn’t wasted here, and the casting choices are solid.
Those of you out there who may be wondering how this all sits upon the animated movie. Does it hurt it? Well, no really. This will sit as its own production, it feels different enough while still having the recognisable setting and characters. Or, except for one, small thing… the songs. I’m sorry, but they kind of sucked, both in the joking respect as well as sucking the tone out of the film. You have what is a pretty grim and gritty tale, stuffed with two songs from the animated film which just don’t fit at all. The only logical reason for this I can think of is that the studios demanded them to be included. Well guys, bad choice.
Luckily, there are other good aspects I can return to talking to. It is a modern marvel of digital effects integrated with alive action character. Neel Sethi is a genuinely good actor, and copes really well with the physically-demanding character he was to play as. He’s still a kid, you know that all the time, but he carries a sense of independence that most teenage actors can struggle to portray. It’s never easy for any actor to hold the weight of an entire movie upon their shoulders, and this kid does very well at that.
The movie also has a great sense of “the big adventure” to it, as you cross many different terrains and meet many strange characters. Things are always shifting and developing, so the time passes by pretty quickly without you having to check your watch. Also, and something that is almost a rare gem to see, the night-time sequences which are mostly dark? … you can actually see what’s going on! Especially in the final act this becomes noticeable, and where so many times this can become a black muddled mess, it has some perfect lighting upon the main focus of the scene.
I honestly went into “The Jungle Book” excited to see it, but worried that it would fail. Disney has a pretty torrid run with live action, and un-convincing CG can spell death. But they got over those two barriers very well indeed, even though they let themselves down on other aspects such as the dumb song inclusions, and overly-cutesy kid animals that immediately looked out of place. It was like they wandered off of the set of “Zootopia”, and just didn’t fit the overall aesthetic this movie seemed to be aiming for.
But all that aside, this was very good fun. Spectacular-looking on the big screen, well voiced, great lead performance, and just the right blend of dark tones and wondrous settings. Really, as far as a showcase for modern CG, this will have eve the cynics sitting up to take notice. It not be Disney’s most original outing to date, but it will be an entertaining ride.
Thanks for reading!