April 29 2016 07:16 AM

'The Jungle Book' caught between gritty reboot and family fun

FRIDAY, April, 29 — Disney’s new live-action adaptation of “The Jungle Book” is a solid movie, suitable for family entertainment. That sounds like a complement, and it almost is. But it’s also the film’s biggest drawback. The movie is fine, but it’s just that: fine. You wont get bored, but you won’t leave the theater particularly excited or inspired either. The film’s only goal, it seems, is to avoid sucking — which seems to be Disney’s only goal, as of late — and the filmmakers apparently didn’t feel inclined to do much more than that.

If you’ve read Rudyard Kipling’s source novels or seen Disney’s 1967 animated film, then you know the story fairly well. After life in the jungle becomes too inhospitable, a young boy, Mowgli (Neel Sethi), must reluctantly return to the human world. While there are a few revisions from both the novels and the animated film — most notably the ending —it’s mostly the same story. This version, however, lacks the inspiration that made those earlier iterations classics. Director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks hit all the beats everyone is expecting from a “The Jungle Book” adaptation, picking all the memorable parts from the sources, but also emoloy the same act structure and development that every other adventure film uses. It gives the film an air of overfamiliarity and cookie-cutter dullness.

But that’s also what the filmmakers are going for: the same old story everyone knows, adjusted and newly calibrated to modern tastes with all the latest filmmaking toys. It makes the film feel tonally confused. With it’s more mature and slightly less kid-friendly approach, it’s obvious the film is playing to the culture’s taste for darker, grittier, more “realistic” revampings of old franchises — but they also try to keep it feeling like a Disney movie. This means cutesy, kid-targeted humor that falls flat most of the time — not even the kids were laughing at my screening — and some familiar musical numbers — only two, thankfully — that are shoehorned in and feel extremely dissonant with the rest of the film. Sorry, Disney. You can’t have a major character get callously murdered one moment and ten minutes later have Baloo singing “The Bare Necessities.”

What about those aforementioned new filmmaking toys? I concede that the film is marvelous from a technical standpoint. The visual effects and Favreau’s directorial eye create a world that simultaneously has verisimilitude and that hallucinogenic, fantastical dream quality that Disney has built its reputation on. While Favreau succeeds in the creation of pictorially beautiful images, he fails in telling his story through these images or loading them with emotional heft. That’s true of most of Favreau’s past films — “Iron Man,” “Elf” and “Chef,” for example. The filmmaking must work in service of illustrating the script. Favreau, being an actor himself, works more in the mode of an actor’s director, focusing more on performance than on cinematic technique.

And to his credit, most of the performances are good. Ben Kingsley and Idris Elba are great, Bill Murray was intelligently cast as Baloo, given his stature as the king of hipster goofballs, and Lupita Nyong’o makes solid use of her limited screen time. The real standout, in both performance and animation, is Christopher Walken as King Louie. His whole sequence is one the film’s more entertaining and memorable, only partially soiled by a rendition of “I Wan’na Be Like You.” Unfortunately, Scarlett Johansson’s cameo as Kaa, the snake, is less than impressive. Something is off about Johansson’s performance here; it doesn’t have the conviction of some of her best roles. Neel Sethi is cute, but that’s all he really plays: cute. He makes a decent Mowgli, but I found something lacking in it. Actually, he’s a perfect reflection of the film surrounding him: solid but less than impressive.

To be fair, I’m partly evaluating this film as I would any other without taking into account its intended audience: children. And it’s as a children’s film that “The Jungle Book” is most successful. The film has an archetypal, ancient quality, like a myth or a moral fable. I feel silly talking about a film’s “message,” but in this case, it seems appropriate. “The Jungle Book” is about protecting and living harmoniously with nature, valuing communalism over rugged and destructive individualism and fighting prejudice. It’s a better anti-prejudice film than Disney’s other animal centric film released this year,”Zootopia.” Thankfully, the “Jungle Book” doesn’t beat you over the head with its “moral of the story.” It feels like a lesson that you just happen to stumble upon as a result of intelligent consideration of the film, an organic result of the story that’s being told.

This film is receiving almost universal praise from critics, several of whom I deeply admire and respect. So as I walked out of the theater, I was confused by my underwhelmed response. But I think I know where the disconnect lies. I’ve been using adjectives like “fine” and “solid,” and throughout this review. And the reality is, most Hollywood films these days aren’t even that good. They’re boring, incoherent, clichéd, sexist, racist, homophobic, lacking in inspiration, visually uninteresting or just plain dumb. To it’s credit, The Jungle Book isn’t really any of these things — but neither it’s the opposite of them, either.

The movie is just good enough to skate by any of those negative labels, makes brilliant use of modern CGI and has some worthwhile messages, to boot. I think many have confused passable with good, because the bar for what qualifies as a “good” movie has been lowered so far. Anything that isn’t dull or clichéd or has any sense of imagination is considered a must-see film. “The Jungle Book” is a bit dull, but it manages to smooth over its dullness with a perpetually moving narrative. It hides its clichés behind good performances. It substitutes use of the latest technology for imagination.

Ultimately, the film is passable. Between live-action adaptations of its classic animated films and its blockbuster action/adventure films, Disney has been making a billions out of producing cinema that’s “good enough” — movies that play to childhood nostalgia but lack any creative spark of artistic ingenuity. We’re so afraid that these tokens of our childhood will be screwed-up and tainted that when they don’t suck, it’s cause for celebration and praise. But in reality, these franchises have been screwed-up, drained of any vitality and wonderment that they once had by corporate meddling and lesser artists imitating great ones. And so passable movies are now “good movies.” Frankly, as a movie lover, that’s kind of depressing.