Equal parts impressive and stilted, faux-live action The Jungle Book makes its case for the future with a classic story from the past
The Jungle Book Walt Disney Studios
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: Justin Marks, based on the books by Rudyard Kipling
Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong'o, Giancarlo Esposito and Scarlett Johansson
Rated PG / 1 hour, 45 minutes
April 15, 2016
(out of four)
Not to be overdramatic, but you could make the case that Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book is the future of movies. The incremental atrophy of the lines of demarcation separating animation from live-action can nearly be considered complete. Somewhere, Kerry Conran quietly weeps.
Perhaps the future was too strong. A future, anyhow. Or a bigger (and sooner) part of it than seemed likely not long ago. Now that such an extravagant piece of digital animation has shown it can reasonably function as a physical world - and with such strong early reaction that it seems bound to be a smash - further ventures down this path are inevitable. For better or for worse.
Favreau's boldest artistic statement comes at the tail end of the film's closing credits. In noticeably big, capital lettering, it reads: FILMED IN DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES (emphasis mine). It's an amusingly overt gesture - confrontational and self-deprecating at the same time - and makes clear what the film (and its filmmaker) considers its major point of pride.
We've long been accustomed to big studio movies - particularly fantasy epics - incorporating vast digital backdrops and locations, and in using that animation to fill in every other gap it could. And others before The Jungle Book - shot on that aforementioned downtown soundstage, its entire jungle the figment of a digital imagination - have been similarly created. It was back at the turn of the century that George Lucas was insisting that cinema was officially shifting "from a photographic medium to a painterly medium." But most all-digital, live-action efforts to date have either gone out of their way to emphasize their own artifice (Sin City's shadow-bound comic-book framing, Sky Captain's glossy retroism) or simply haven't cared how chintzy they looked (the Star Wars prequels). Otherwise they've been hybrids like King Kong, Avatar or Alice in Wonderland, among others. The Jungle Book is a rare example of a fully animated film (except for the one human actor) that gets in the vicinity of photorealism.
Our relationship to this digital encroachment has run hot and cold over the years, and what's interesting about the timing of this movie is that it comes on the heels of a mini-pushback against CGI overuse. Movies like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road were singled out for praise for the way they used practical effects and actual environments. It wasn't that they didn't use CGI - they used loads of it, particularly the former - but both seemed like optimal and creative uses of it - a blending of physical and digital that didn't tip into over-reliance on the latter. The best of both worlds. The Jungle Book is a different kind of experiment, but it's still a big tentpole movie billing itself as live action despite having virtually none. That it manages to pull off that trick reasonably well - not entirely "real," its animated shimmer applied over everything like a light glaze, but still generally plausible as a setting in which its characters can "physically" exist - is a few steps beyond what we've seen from its spiritual predecessors.
Overdependence on green screens has had a way of cheapening big-budget cinema in a way that goes beyond simple era-specific limitations - the number of movies I've seen that clearly used it as a cost-cutting crutch is staggering, and it's no surprise that those examples invariably age poorly - and eventually wore out its welcome. The Jungle Book may reverse that tide, but at least it does so on the strength of high standards.
Which is not to say that Favreau and Co. achieved perfection in their quest for realism. Their human character, Mowgli (Neel Sethi), spends so much time on the run that it's hard not to notice the motion blur around his body, despite the creative team's best efforts to fuse it with the digital environment. Similarly, in slower moments - particularly medium shots of Mowgli walking with one animal sidekick or another - the flatness of the background becomes more noticeable against Sethi's three-dimensionality. (It's funny how hard we've worked over the years to create what amounts to a modern equivalent of the outdated rear-projection shots so common of "outdoor" scenes in the studio era.) And the huge cast of talking animals, while impressive, and a massive improvement over the CGI animals we've seen in the likes of The Chronicles of Narnia, I Am Legend, The Day After Tomorrow or Noah, are still a few Uncanny Valley steps away from being fully credible. (Although King Louie, the Gigantopithecus, comes really, really close. I'm not sure what it is about primates, but they seem to make up most of the best examples of CGI characters. King Kong and all the apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes look way better than the various wolves, tigers and bears on display here.)
But there's a lot to admire about the way the film looks and feels, particularly the way the great cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Spider-Man 2) shoots action sequences - his camera frequently pushing against the directional movement of the action, using its speed as if it's on the attack as the characters glide past.
Given my general hesitation toward this kind of pretend live-action, the surprise for me was that it was the story elements that wound up bothering me most - not the animated world or the CGI animals. There's no need to rehash the plot, which in its structure and character dynamics (if not its specifics or its dialogue) is very much like Disney's splendid 1967 animated - or rather, hand-drawn - version. But this time around, everything seems oddly segmented, which significantly damages the overall arc of Mowgli's journey. Here's a scene, here's another scene, here's another scene. The lack of cohesion (tonally and geographically) becomes more conspicuous as the film moves along. The scenes interact so sporadically with the larger narrative arc involving the villainous tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) that the emotional core Favreau and writer Justin Marks are going for - the preservation of Mowgli's wolf family against a looming threat; the reconciliation of the boy's heritage with the life in the jungle that he's always known - never delivers, its thrilling moments hinting at a certain depth it can't actually reach.
The voice cast is uniformly great, but the clunky narrative even casts a shadow over their work. Scarlett Johansson, for example, is an inspired choice as the seductive snake Kaa, but her role amounts to nothing more than a one-scene cameo, enjoyable but ultimately serving no big-picture purpose.
As disparate as each sequence seems from the rest, they all feature great moments, and Favreau peppers the whole film with peculiar and clever interpretations of his Kipling and Disney sources. He envisions King Louie as Apocalypse Now's Col. Kurtz - the way he emerges as little more than a voice, hidden by shadows, appearing only in occasional shafts of light; the replication of physical movements lifted directly from Brando's performance. Walken - whose presence Favreau slyly introduces with Mowgli's discovery of a cowbell inside Louie's ancient, crumbling temple - is predictably excellent, joining Elba, Johansson and Bill Murray's Baloo as the cast standouts. The way these actors sink so perfectly into this world draws a bit more attention to the limitations of the film's lead. Though we can acknowledge the difficulty of a kid actor carrying a story while performing entirely on a mostly empty soundstage, it's also impossible to ignore the fact that some of his line readings are truly awful.
I'll say this much about The Jungle Book - it's at least more worthwhile a Disney adaptation than last year's Cinderella. Unlike that film's lingering sense of redundancy and pointlessness, this film at least tries to forge a certain personality and point of view of its own, without going too far off the narrative reservation. I just wish it had gone even farther, or done a better job telling its story instead than jumping awkwardly from place to place and scene to scene.
But something like that is a solvable problem. The bigger questions of what this movie represents and what it means for the near and distant future of the blockbuster still remain. Even if this kind of hybrid (and calling it a hybrid is being generous) catches on even more than it already has, I wonder whether it will be worth the effort for other movies to painstakingly create every single frame the way this movie's artists did. Which makes me wonder how badly some films will end up cutting corners while fundamentally attempting to do the same thing. Taking a trendy or radical technological approach to making a film is, after all, usually more a financial decision than a creative one. This movie, at least, demonstrates that it can be done at a reasonably high level. What impact that has on our big-budget adventures over the next decade is anybody's guess.