Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Actually, let’s be fair to this live action / CGI remake of the Disney classic. I am, it appears, very much in the minority in this deeply negative opinion. Elsewhere, people are queueing up to rain plaudits on its every frame, to celebrate its brilliance, to champion its excellent animal animations. I, on the other hand, feel like 37 assorted, exotic, CGI animals have widdled all over my childhood.
The premise of the story remains pretty much intact. “Man-cub” Mowgli, lost in the jungle as a babe-in-arms, is found by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley, sounding oddly like Eddie Izzard) and given to a pack of wolves to raise as their own. Now, as an older child, he must return to the “man village”, partly because, well, that’s where humans belong, but mostly because Shere Khan has got wind of his existence and has threatened to kill him. And, on the way, Mowgli interacts with, and gets life lessons from, assorted jungle creatures.
There are, admittedly, some very good things here. There are long shots that look like elaborate book plates. Bill Murray’s Baloo is (mostly) an utter delight. Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa is hypnotic and deliciously creepy. Idris Elba is (mostly) a great and sinister Shere Khan. There are also some smart touches, such as King Louie (Walken) playing his role as a mobster bartering protection for the secret of “man’s red flower”, and the way that “they’ll make a man of him” loses its usual positive sheen when viewed from the perspective of the animals.
So, yes, when it’s good, The Jungle Book is very, very good but when it’s bad – which is about 70% of the time – it’s jaw-droppingly awful. Favreau rarely misses an opportunity for mawkish sentimentality. The emotional tone is all over the shop, rattling from slapstick to direct assault on the heartstrings in a matter of seconds and, at times, pretty much in the same sentence. The CGI work veers between (mostly) genuinely astonishing and oh-dear-God-how-did-that-shot-get-through? The sense of peril and violence is mostly well-handled but instantly makes the film utterly unsuitable for its target, youngest viewers, surely? Sethi is a charmless, far-too-knowing and ridiculously all-American Mowgli: sure, it never quite gets to Tony Curtis “yonder lies the castle of my fadda” territory but it’s perilously bloody close sometimes. The use of music is hilariously, painfully, embarrassingly bad.
If you think it jars when Baloo floats down the river singing a shoehorned-in version of The Bare Necessities wait until King Louie stops being menacing and launches into an almost rapped, a propos of nothing, declaration that, oo-be-doo, he wants to be like you-ooh-ooh. It’s less tribute to the original, more drunk uncle at a wedding. And quite why he’s a Gigantopithecus – a huge species of ape that became extinct some 100,000 years ago – rather than, say, something that’s actually bleeding indigenous to the India of the story… well, you’d have to ask Favreau. And if you think that sounds terrible, wait until the whole thing switches – rapidly – to a misjudged revenge drama or the moment when Mowgli starts creating elaborate Heath Robinson inventions and making his own tools. No. Really. I mean, he’s meant to be a feral child raised by wolves yet suddenly he’s a 10-year old Tony sodding Stark in a loin cloth…
Look. All told, this take on The Jungle Book didn’t make me stabby like the oh-so-ironically-named Fantastic Mr Fox (Wes Anderson’s wholesale destruction of my favourite Roald Dahl book and still the reason Wes Anderson may wish to consider taking out a preemptive restraining order), or Tim Burton’s “reimagining” of Alice in Wonderland: reimagined as what Tim? A turd? Hmm? Hmm? Something tells me though that “it didn’t make me homicidal!” isn’t going to make it onto the posters. By all means go and make up your own mind(s), as others have gone crazy over it. But, you know, don’t say I didn’t warn you…